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Thursday, October 15, 2015

We May Ride Once Again On The Sheep's Back - The Vitale Barberis Canonico 2nd Wool Excellence Awards

The Vitale Barberis Canonico  (VBC) Wool Excellence Awards was held on Tuesday evening in Sydney. The gong was taken out by Des Manning and his team at the property 'Miena' in Tasmania that runs 12,000 Saxon Merino sheep.

The awards night was the second held by the team at VBC which offers $50,000 in prize money to the winners. How exactly the winners are decided I am not sure, but effectively it is a reward for working with VBC consistently to produce fine micron wool. The programmes which these smaller sheep farms employ are specifically designed to get consistent production of high quality super fine micron wool out of farms which are located predominantly in Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales.

The wool is then purchased by agents acting on behalf of groups such as Zegna and VBC and those companies which act as weavers that are contracted to make wool on behalf of bunch service companies such as Scabal, Loro Piana, Dormeuil, Holland & Sherry and more.

I was fortunate enough to sit with the buyer for VBC, Mr. Davide Fontaneto, who wore a product of their collaborations with Australian farmers. His suit was a very flat finish twill in black with a white pin stripe. It weighed 200 grams and was a super 160's fibre Australian merino wool. The notched lapel suit still looked as good as new and yet Davide informed me that it was in fact 10 years old and that he had been working with VBC now for over 14 years.

Fontaneto explained that once the wool is packed up in a bale at the farm level it is transported to them directly through the port of Genoa and delivered by truck to a factory that VBC co-own with other companies that is located approximately 20 kilometres from the town of Biella. There, the combing and scouring takes place and it prepares wool to a what is commonly referred to as a wool top by going through various stages. At first the wool is processed into a batting, where the hairs are cross directional and are in what would appear more like a felt in the hand. As the wool is processed further through combing to remove the short hairs and to slowly get those wool fibres all moving in one direction, we arrive first at what is called a roving and, then,  finally at a wool top where all the fibres are somewhat twisted and moving in one direction, making them perfect for the next stage of turning them into yarns on spools. You can see some of that processing in this video.

You can dye wool at multiple stages throughout the process of making a wool fabric. In fact you can piece dye fabric after weaving which can be appropriate for some blends of fibres or for the versatility of playing with a palette of colours each season. However, often wool is dyed at a wool top level before weaving the tops into yarns. Seated next to me on my right on Tuesday evening was Matt Jensen of MJ Bale and he explained to me that the Italian cloth companies will often take a 'pantone' like approach to preparing wool for weaving in which they try to cover all their bases. By dyeing ten types of blues and ten hues of navy along with a good deal of other colours such as greens, yellows, greys and purples, the weaving companies can use at a yarn level combinations of colours to create effects in the wool. Jensen himself was wearing what he said was a twill construction  article 427 VBC wool which was a blend of navy and a mélange. A mélange is a term which is applied to having multiple colours of fibres blended together at a yarn level so that it is, well.... a mélange . Fontaneto explained that if you wanted to create a green to the eye, you did not necessarily have to dye a yarn green, but instead you could use yellow and blue fibres to achieve a similar result.

Fontaneto said that Australians still had a lot to be proud of. He said that merino wool from our country was still the best in the world, bettering nations such as New Zealand and South Africa. This was also reiterated by Alberto Barberis who spoke briefly to introduce the awards and who pleaded with the audience that if Australia wished to protect her sheep industry then we needed to form a group. His words seemed lost on the audience but in my opinion he meant that in order to sustain a long term viability to our high quality standards and production then we needed to form a hub or organization similar to the wool top processing and fabric weaving community of Biella in Italy where, by forming themselves into organizations and structures, they were able sustain long term productivity and creativity in an industry that has been heavily hit by competition from markets such as China. Biella is for wool what Silicon Valley is for technology.

Alberto Barberis - suggested Australian premium Saxon merino wool growers form a group in order to protect the industry. 
With the price of high quality wool currently at around $22.00 AUD per kilo, the industry itself is faced with enormous challenges as the cost of farming increases and viability of the industry is being threatened by new markets for wool. The likes of VBC cannot continue to process and weave fine wool cloths if Australian farmers give up on breeding and rearing high quality Saxon Merino wool sheep.

As for the Australian climate, I asked Fontaneto what he thought might be the ideal ensemble for the Australian businessman. He said that given the climate in Sydney he thought that trousers, a jacket and an open linen shirt were they way to go in a Sydney summer. He suggested that Australian men should engage more in Mohair wool, which he said combined the best properties of two great wools (merino sheep and goat). The long and strong nature of merino wool fibres and the open and more breathable nature of mohair which allows you to stay cool all day. He suggested that Australian men would benefit from 1/2 lined suits and that mohair/merino blends offered less crumbling and creasing throughout the day. From the VBC collection he recommended that our readers look for the Revenge collection and specifically to article 5592 and the 511 double ply.

When I asked Fontanelo who would make his dream suit in Italy he said that he fits off the rack suits perfectly but that if he were to choose a tailor it would either be Brioni or Caraceni.

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