Deep in the foothills of the Alpine mountains, a few kilometers north of Biella, Italy lies the what is probably the oldest fabric mill in the world: Vitale Barberis Canonico.
Nobody really knows who holds the mantle of oldest fabric mill, and Reda, who's mill is very close to VBC's, certainly likes to contest the claim, but we know for certain that Vitale Barberis Canonico was in operation in 1663.
The document to verify all of this is a tax receipt for a gray suit sold to the Duke of Savoy by Ajmo Barberis, as well as a brief description of their wool dying process. VBC is so modest that they claim 1663, but we know their heritage goes back much further.
Where VBC made fabric 250 years before electricity is still where they make their fabric today, only on a much larger piece of land, and with the most cutting edge technology available. Their investment in technology over the last few decades, developing new machines and techniques never before seen in the fabric industry, has enabled them to become the largest fabric producer in Italy.
1701 had the chance to tour the fabric mills of VBC and learned in intricate detail the care and quality that goes into each fabric.
Starting with the Sheep
As noted in our article about Biella, for the past 1000 years, Biella has been the place for Italian fabric. The combination of the cool weather, the seclusion of mountainous pastures, and of course the sweet water, has inspired nearly every Italian mill to base their headquarters there.
Today, the sheep are in Australia and New Zealand, ever since Spanish Merino Wool were introduced to the Australian farmers in 1797. These Australian farmers have continually bread bigger and better sheep over the past two centuries, making them almost impossible to compete with.
So instead of competing, VBC decided to buy them, making them one of the only fully vertically integrated fabric mills in the world.
Wool is Washed, Carded, Twisted & Spun
Each week, thousands of pounds of raw wool are sent from farms a couple hundred miles south of Sydney to Biella for washing and carding.
Straight from the sheep the wool is dirty, sometimes white, sometimes brown, sometimes a mixture of the two, and when you touch the unwashed strands, you'll notice a thin film of lanolin on your hands. This fat barrier is used to coat and protect each strand, but too much will make the fabric greasy and hard to work with.
Thus about 95% is removed from the wool and sold to Italian cosmetic companies. The remaining lanolin serves as the final protector for each strand of wool that is spun into thread.
This is the reason why you want to avoid taking your wool garments to the dry cleaners too often; each trip strips the remaining lanolin off the wool. To maintain longevity, a garment you can pass on to your kids, then it is wise to only take a garment to the cleaners maybe once or twice a year.
After the lanolin is removed, each strand of wool is carded, i.e. combed, to produce long fine strands of wool that will be ready for spinning. The result are huge chunks of wool strands that look like giant coiled rope.
From here, the wool is twisted and spun, over and over, constantly reiterating until the yarn is slimmed down into very fine strands, ready for dyeing.
Yarn Dye vs Piece Dye
One of the more important aspects of fine fabrics is its subtlety of color and depth. A navy is not just a navy. A gray is not just a gray. They are, in fact, woven with purple or red yarns in addition to the navy. Black, silver, white, and purple that creates a gray.
This can only be achieved through yarn dyeing; when the yarn is dyed first, then woven into the fabric. This creates not just a uniform colored fabric, but a fabric that jumps out at you with different dimensions of color.
This is opposed to piece dying, where yarn is woven into fabric and then dyed. While both will get the yarn a specific color, only yarn dyeing enables us to have these different dimensions of color that we find important to fine suiting.
Of course, VBC yarn dyes.
Weaving Into Fabric
Now that the yarn is dyed, the next step is weaving. The complexity of the weaving process make one really appreciate Ada Lovelace and everyone that came before her in weaving garments. To know exactly the correct sequential order of each yarn, warp and weft, to create a glen-plaid, or a perfect pinstripe, is downright stunning.
The process starts with creating the warp, or the vertical yarns. Because everything is yarn dyed, these vertical yarns can be an assortment of colors which creates the depth of colors in the fabric. Then each strand of yarn is lined up for the weft, or the horizontal yarn weaving in and out of the warp yarn. Both the warp and the weft are brought over to the looms to be woven together to create our fabric.
In VBC's high tech factory, each loom looks to be the size of half a city bus. Capable of kicking out thousands of meters per day, VBC has a football sized facility that houses 50 machines, and another facility that houses another 50, which is an incredible sight to see.
One Last Wash
When the fabric is finally woven, it still doesn't feel like the final product until it's washed one more time in Biella's sweet water. This removes the last bit of coarseness in the fabric and makes the fabric truly shine.
Through their innovative techniques, VBC is able to use about half the amount of water as a typical wool mill, and processes its gary water through natural ponds that surround its facilities, home to some goldfish.
Spotted on the lush VBC campus were these cool autonomous lawn mowers.
The most impressive room in all of the Vitale Barberis mill was its quality inspection. Here, every centimeter of fabric is poured over by at least four professionals, who have trained for years to obtain their positions.
This dedication to the quality of fabric is why VBC's fabric is rarely returned. Often times, when dealing with lower quality mills, fabric has to be inspected again, and often washed and heated to to ensure the fabric won't shrink during production. But VBC's dedication to quality makes their fabric never have to be treated, and rarely ever sent back for defects.
355 years and 13 generations later, Vitale Barberis Canonico is still family owned, run by three cousins, Francesco Barberis Canonico (Creative Director) Alessandro Barberis Canonico (Managing Director), and Lucia Barberis Canonico, all sharing a grandfather, who is the brand's namesake, Vitale Barberis Canonico..
Employing over 450 people in a town of 700, with very little agriculture or tourism, is what makes VBC a very special fabric mill. Some workers have been weaving for the Barberis family for generations, and working side-by-side as a family, and as a community, has led VBC to keep its family and company heritage in place.