By: Team RajaFashions, Hong Kong Bureau | Fashion

How Biella Became the Wool Capital of the World

In the world of tailored suits there is one place that stands above all others as the capital of cloth, the first wonder of the world of wool. That place is the Biella region of northern Italy. Why do those who love tailored suits hold this place in such high esteem? Because you can’t make a great tailored suit without two things—a great tailor and great cloth. So when the greatest tailors in menswear want the world’s greatest cloth, they look to Biella. There they find beautifully designed and expertly woven suiting fabrics like the Super 150s and the likes.

When the greatest tailors in menswear want the world’s greatest cloth, they look to Biella.

The story of how Biella came to be known for world class wool goes back as far as people have been living in the area. The rugged, mountainous region surrounding the town of Biella left the early inhabitants with limited options for making a living. When the products that naturally grow in the region, rye and chestnuts, didn’t yield enough produce to sell, the locals turned to raising sheep on the the land. They found the terrain well suited for their flocks and soon many people began to make a living from spinning and weaving wool.

What’s in a Name

One such weaver was Ajmo Barbero, who is cited on a receipt dating back to 1663 as the seller of a large quantity of gray twill to the region’s leading nobleman, The Duke of Savoy. The receipt certifies that Barbero was in business over 400 years ago. This is significant because Ajmo Barbero would eventually pass down his weaving craft, making it a family business.

In Northern Italy, the name Barbero is extremely common. So much so that the town of Barbero gained its name from the families who lived there. Later, the tables would turn and the families would adopt names like Barberis, meaning “of Barbero.”

Their name may derive from the family’s propensity for becoming men of the cloth, but the name Barberis Canonico became most famous for a man of the literal cloth.

Ajmo Barbero’s family was one of those who took on the Barberis moniker. In the mid-19th century, after three members of the family went into the priesthood, the family would further distinguish themselves by adding Canonicoto to their name and becoming Barberis Canonico or “The family from Barbero who studies the biblical canon.”

Barberis-Canonico-Family

While their name may derive from the family’s propensity for becoming men of the cloth, the name Barberis Canonico became most famous for a man of the literal cloth, the modern patriarch of the family for whom the famous mill is named, Vitale Barberis Canonico.

The Loom Boom

What had begun out of necessity had turned into the center of the Biellese economy. By 1887 there were 18 manufacturing plants, 126 mechanical looms, 714 manual looms and 1,700 employees in the wool trade in Biella. This boom in large-scale weaving coincided with the advent of photography, making it almost impossible to find a photo of the Biella region without a chimney stack from one of the spinning factories in the shot.

Mechanical Looms - 1868

Today, more than 350 years after Ajmo Barbero sold a batch of wool to the Duke of Savoy, Biella enjoys a reputation as THE place to find some of the highest quality wool fabrics. Vitale Barberis Canonico is now known worldwide as one of the preeminent producers of fine wool cloths. It’s largest customer is the Italian fabric mill and luxury menswear fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna.

Something In the Water

The Vitale Barberis Canonico mill, and the many more that have come to inhabit the region over the years, found a home in Biella partly because of the water.

The water from the area is particularly hard due to its Alpine beginnings. As water runs down from the Piedmonte mountains into the Biellese region, it picks up elements of the mineral formations it erodes along the way. The resulting hard water, which is particularly valuable for finishing fabrics, helped to distinguish the local fabrics and aided Biella’s ascent to the top of the world of wool.

Flecchia-Mill

Take a tour of Biella’s Via della Lana (Italian for “The Wool Way”), and you’ll take a route that follows and traverses the many streams and creeks that powered the local fabric makers right up until the early 20th century when electricity came to the area. Power had a modernizing effect on the whole region and the mills were at the forefront of these changes.

Entering The Modern Age

In the middle part of the century, the Barberis Canonico business was passed down to Vitale, who oversaw massive upgrades to the company’s capacity and is cited as the modern patriarch of the family. He is the father or grandfather of many of the managers of the company. All you need do to understand how Vitale is alive and well in the company is look at a recent family portrait. When asked to sit for the portrait, the seven members of the family who are involved in the day-to-day operations brought a photo of Vitale to be included in the picture. Vitale Barberis Canonico is not just the name of the company, but the spirit of the company.

The secret to success for Vitale Barberis Canonico was the fleece that Vitale’s son, Alberto, found in Australia.

But don’t let the centuries old family business story make you think otherwise. The mill at Vitale Barberis Canonico is a thoroughly modern facility. Starting with Vitale’s investments in faster, higher capacity machines, the company has pioneered technological advancements in the making of cloth. His son Alberto took over the reins of the technical side of the business in 1970, putting his mechanical engineering degree to good use installing new machinery and adding even more capacity.

Merino-Sheep

Throughout the seventies Alberto began traveling to Australia to test different wools from different breeds of sheep. What he found was a fleece that was extremely difficult to tease, but produced an incredibly soft, yet strong wool. Using that fleece became the secret to success for Vitale Barberis Canonico. Today, the secret is out, but the wool, made from these specially bred sheep is no less luxuriant.

We stock some of the best Italian fabrics including Zegnaconnect with us for more information.

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