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Style: Bale Hearing

William Kissel

Five years ago, some of Neiman Marcus’ best customers gathered in the third-floor men’s department at the Beverly Hills store for what could have been a routine Brioni trunk show. But rather than discuss suit silhouettes and tailoring while sipping their Champagne, they were drawn to the 200-pound bale of raw superfine wool fiber that was displayed in the corner of the room, guarded by a red velvet rope as though it were a work of art.

Brioni had purchased the bale from leading textile maker Loro Piana and heralded it as the finest wool in the world, which at the time it probably was. The promotion proved to be a stroke of genius: Men stepped forward to add their names to an exclusive list of those who wished to purchase a suit made from the limited supply of Super 170 fabric that the bale would eventually become.

“That’s when it all started,” recalls Joe Barrato, president of Brioni USA, noting that the promotion forever changed the way luxury suitmakers and retailers promote custom clothing—by emphasizing the quality of the wool as well as the cut of the cloth. To illustrate just how far the material world has progressed, says Barrato, “Today, Super 170 fabric is fairly accessible in the luxury suit business.”

Forty years ago, when Italian fabric and clothing manufacturer Ermenegildo Zegna established an award to motivate Australian and New Zealander merino sheep farmers to produce finer wools, no one imagined that the initiative would have such a widespread impact. In the four decades since, the textile industry has invested considerably in technology, transcontinental travel, and, yes, more trophies in the quest to produce the finest wool so that they can make the best cloths. 

 

These efforts have resulted in some remarkable fabrics over the years, including Lumbs Golden Bale, Blue Diamond Super 180, and Exceptional 200—all superfine wool cloths targeted to men willing to pay upwards of $10,000 for a suit. As the textile industry’s ongoing best bale competition has intensified, these fabrics, which were recently considered cutting edge, are mere starter cloths today.

While the quality of a man’s suit is gauged by the comfort of the fit and the details in the craftsmanship—both of which can be viewed subjectively—one of the most important indicators of value is a purely objective metric measurement called a micron (a millionth of a meter), which relates to fiber thickness. That is how textile mills gauge the quality of wool fibers before they are woven into cloth. Raw cashmere, for instance, generally measures from 14 to 16 microns, about six times finer than human hair. Vicuña (a fiber from an animal with the same name that was recently removed from the endangered species list) measures around 13 to 14 microns. The smaller the micron measurement, the lighter the fiber, the finer the fabric, and the costlier the resulting suit.

The competition to produce the lowest-micron wool fiber took its most dramatic turn in February 2000, when Italian suit- and clothmaker Loro Piana purchased a record bale of wool measuring 12.9 microns—lighter than cashmere and vicuña. Soon after, Moxon Huddersfield, one of England’s finest clothmakers, acquired from another source the only other bale of 12.9-micron wool known to exist at the time. Such fiber is used to make Super 210, a fabric so fine and limited that the suitmakers who use it—Loro Piana, Kiton, Attolini, and d’Avenza—can command from $15,000 to $30,000 for a single garment.

After Loro Piana purchased its unprecedented wool, the company established the World Wool Record Challenge Cup to encourage breeders to produce even finer bales (which Loro Piana naturally hoped to eventually acquire). Not to be outdone, Zegna created a new award of its own, the Vellus Aureum Trophy, with the same goal in mind.

It did not take long for the incentives to pay off. Last February, Loro Piana acquired a bale of 12.5-micron wool. Then, only two months later, the company purchased a 12.1-micron bale for a record price of $378 per pound, more than double the cost of a typical 15.5-micron bale used to make Super 150 cloth. (Each of these record bales was produced by the Highlander factory of Tumbarumba, Australia.) Pier Luigi Loro Piana, owner of Loro Piana, calls its latest acquisition “the icon of the wool industry.” He says the fiber will not become cloth until a finer bale is found, which is the standard practice at Loro Piana. After a new record bale is acquired, the previous one is woven into cloth for the company’s Record Bale fabric collection. Loro Piana offers suits made from the cloth to a select group of Record Bale customers who have the right of first refusal on purchasing a Record Bale suit. “We consult them first,” says Loro Piana, “and if they don’t want the latest one to complete their collection, we are free to sell it to someone else.”


Also in 2002, Zegna registered an even finer wool, one measuring 11.7 microns. However, that fiber, purchased from the Legends farm in New South Wales, Australia, came from a single sheep, so the fiber quantity is limited to only a couple of pounds—not enough to produce cloth. “This is mostly a symbolic gesture,” explains Djordje Stefanovic, fashion director at Zegna. “It shows that breeders who are competing at this level are capable of delivering higher-quality refined yarns than they are currently producing.” Although the wool has no commercial value, Stefanovic says, the fact that Zegna owns such rare fiber enhances the company’s reputation.

As the market continually tests and exceeds previous records, the question of practicality is raised. The limited wool cloths that have been made from microscopic 12.9-micron fibers are so delicate that they cannot be sewn by machine. Only a superior tailor working entirely by hand can fashion them into a suit, which explains why the few garments made from these ultrafine yarns come with stratospheric price tags. Furthermore, these suits are so delicate they cannot withstand repeated wear or cleaning.

For these reasons, thus far no one has made a man’s jacket—let alone a suit—from cloth that was derived from wool fiber measuring less than 12.9 microns. However, mills have begun to address the delicacy issue with innovative approaches to spinning yarn.

“The thinking used to be that if we have the finest-micron wool, by definition we should spin the finest cloth, and we’ve proven this can be done,” says Firas Chamsi-Pasha, managing director of Moxon Huddersfield. “But we have also learned. Now we spin thicker yarns from these fine-micron wools, so you have the same softness, but you can also achieve the necessary strength.”


In addition to Zegna and Loro Piana, at least two sources—Moxon Huddersfield and Escorial—claim to be in possession of sub-12.9-micron wools. Chamsi-Pasha of Moxon says his consortium of New Zealand breeders have been gathering wool from a flock of 100,000 sheep for more than a year to amass about 26 pounds of a wool fiber measuring 11.5 microns. He hopes to have enough for cloth production within five years. “This particular wool was not bought on the auction market,” explains Chamsi-Pasha, who says he is able to secure finer wools than large firms because he does not buy at auction and is willing to pay “silly prices” for the privilege. In fact, he has essentially offered a blank check to any breeder who offers a bale that can beat Loro Piana’s 12.1-micron specimen.

For its part, Escorial—a group of Australian, New Zealand, and Tasmanian wool growers—also claims to own the world’s finest wool. Its superfine variety comes from a rare breed of miniature sheep descended from a flock kept in the 16th century by King Philip II of Spain. Because the consortium grows wool exclusively for Brioni (and Oxxford Clothes beginning in fall 2003), Escorial is not eligible for the Zegna or Loro Piana trophies.

According to managing director Peter Radford, Escorial’s best fiber measures 12.7 microns with a bale weight of 198 pounds, enough to produce about 45 Brioni suits, which will be available in the fall for around $21,000 each at Brioni shops and select Neiman Marcus stores. Called Escorial Reserve, this wool is several microns finer than regular Escorial and was reportedly hand pulled from 60 head of sheep over a three-year period. In Radford’s opinion, Escorial’s 12.7-micron fiber should be judged above Loro Piana’s 12.1-micron bale. “Ours was grown naturally, free-range if you will,” he explains, “while theirs was artificially produced.”

“Artificially produced” wools, as Radford refers to them, come from sheep that have been confined in tiny indoor sheds and fed a controlled diet to limit fiber contamination. The practice, known as shedding, has led to protests by Greenpeace and other animal activist organizations that are lobbying for laws to prohibit shedding throughout Australia. (Shedding is now legal only in the southern state of Victoria.) Breeders are said to have responded by moving the animals to restricted areas, out of sight of wool buyers.


On Zegna’s behalf, Stefanovic dismisses claims of animal abuse outright, noting the company’s long environmental history, which includes spending millions of dollars on local environmental causes where Zegna opens stores and reforesting an entire desecrated mountain in northern Italy where the family-owned company is based. He says Zegna would never condone or support the use of animal mistreatment to secure its ever-finer wools. But Stefanovic, like all fine suitmakers, acknowledges that wool is a mass-produced commodity. “Let’s be practical. There is not one guy grabbing the animal by the neck and gently trying to shear it,” he says. “These animals go through a system of shearing. But, aside from a few [accidental] cuts, they don’t get hurt. They are just too important to the breeders.”

In making his case to explain why he believes shedding is not widely practiced, he points out that if it were possible to grow equally fine wools indoors, then it would be done in places other than Australia and New Zealand. “The microclimate is key,” he explains. “It has to be a specific area where the grass and the rain are so specific that you cannot reproduce the results in other territories. When sheep have been moved from Australia to other regions in the world, it has never worked. Otherwise, we would be able to increase quantities, and that has not happened either.”

Zegna’s corporate literature about its wool gathering notes that its ultrafine wools are secured from sheep that have been blanketed for a nine-month period to protect the fiber from external elements—weather, vegetable matter, dirt—inherent with outdoor grazing.


Indeed, most clothmakers agree that wool breeders must be taking some extraordinary measures to continually achieve the ever-finer fibers that the industry demands. According to Geoffrey Ellam, managing director at Huddersfield Fine Worsteds, which produces both Lumbs Golden Bale and Escorial cloths, water and diet are major control factors, which is why many breeders keep their animals in controlled indoor environments.

“If an animal gets plenty of water one year, and the next year there is a drought, you get variances in the fiber,” he explains. The more food and water an animal consumes, the thicker the wool fiber. For this reason, Ellam claims that “nearly 90 percent of the fine wools—especially these very fine bales—can be produced only by continually starving the animal. They are kept in a shed like [calves for veal], and they are fed a specific diet and watered in a specific, minimum way, so that the fiber produced is consistent.”

The ethical questions raised by the treatment of the animals is not the only issue confronting the superfine wool market. As fine-micron wools continue to generate record prices, some breeders have resorted to extraordinary, and sometimes illegal, means to get in on the action.

Several years ago, the Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), an Australian government-financed wool research group, working with the Woolmark Company, developed a process called Optim, which expands and stretches high-micron wool fibers to make them appear finer and softer. However, some wool growers have attempted to cheat the numbers game by applying the technology to 14- and 15-micron wools to give them the look and texture of 12-micron wool. Unfortunately the results are often temporary, and most fibers expand to their original micron count during cloth production or, worse, after the suit is made.


“The problem is, there are a lot of fakes out there. You’d be surprised by who is getting their hands on this stuff,” says Brioni’s Barrato. With so many mills claiming to own 12- and 13-micron wools now, he adds, both clothing manufacturers and, ultimately, suit buyers have to rely on the clothmaker’s integrity. “I have learned so much in the last year about how you can cheat by expanding yarns. There is no real way for us to know if the micron quoted is accurate, so relationships with our suppliers become that much more crucial.”

Fortunately, as the competition for fine wools escalates, Australia’s breeders, who have the most to lose from counterfeits, are actively working on a registration system to verify their claims. Currently, Australian and New Zealander wool farmers have access to devices known as Sirolan Fleecescan systems that measure the microns of their wools during shearing.

“Now they are trying to come up with some way that the wool can be documented and we can know exactly what we’re buying,” says Barrato, noting that suitmakers such as Brioni can then pass this information on to their customers. “Certainly that will lend credibility to a mill representative,” he adds. “He’ll be able to say ‘Joe, this is Super 180, and here is the registration to prove it.’ ”

Such safeguards are already in place at Escorial, whose 12.7-micron Escorial Reserve wool has been certified by CSIRO as the finest natural fiber ever grown in the world. Anyone interested in authenticating this claim can find the document online at www.csiro.au, says Escorial’s Radford. Similarly, each bolt of Loro Piana’s Record Bale fabric is individually numbered and marked with an exclusive selvage and label identifying its uniqueness with the date of production.


However, what cannot be documented is precisely how these fine wools were produced, and the future consequences of the increasing downward pressure on micron counts. “At some stage there is going to have to be a day of reckoning,” says Radford, questioning how far mills and suitmakers are willing to push wool farmers to secure the finest wools for the toniest clients. He says breeders can resort to all sorts of methods to restrict and isolate the animals to produce wool fibers with even finer micron counts. “[Eventually] the only thing that will stop them from getting it finer is the fact that the animal will die,” he says.

Ermenegildo Zegna, 888.88.ZEGNA, www.zegna.com;
Escorial, +64.3.314.4416;
Loro Piana, 212.980.7961;
Moxon Huddersfield, +44.1484.602622

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Photo by Ted Morrison