Italian handcrafts: Biella Textiles
- WTI Magazine #88 Feb 20, 2017
The historic textile tradition of Biella owes its development to the characteristics of the local area: its location in the foothills of the Alps favoured livestock breeding rather than extensive crop cultivation and so the use of sheep fleece to provide yarns and fabrics became established in the area.
The abundant presence of watercourses and the resourcefulness of the local inhabitants allowed the development over time of a quality textile activity, which gradually evolved and specialised from manual techniques until it achieved full industrialisation.
The first traces of textile production are found in pre-Roman times, whereas the earliest statutes regulating the textile activity date back to the middle ages. Thanks to the favourable conditions of the local area, the production of yarns and textiles soon expanded from within the family circle to exchange for other local goods, making the conclusion of commercial agreements necessary.Between 1275 and 1419, the various individual “arts” adopted their own statutes. At that time, textile activities were subdivided into three branches: tailoring, weaving and drapery.
An old hand loom
Then, between the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the local area was divided up according to the product: Valle Elvo specialised in “fine cloths”, while the valleys of Strona and Sessera produced “course and ordinary cloths”.
At this stage, the system was still family-run, but merchant entrepreneurs started to gain importance and began to absorb the production of the domestic artisans, to whom they had previously provided the raw material.The first mechanical looms, invented by the British during the industrial revolution, were introduced to Italy by Pietro Sella of Biella in 1816 and installed in the Valle di Mosso.
The district has experienced periods of intense concentration of activity, first with large, labour-intensive factories and then with the development of small family businesses, specialising in specific phases of the production chain. This structure is still relevant today, since it is the only district in Europe to preserve the entire textile production chain intact and viable, from treatment of the unwashed fibres to the finished garment.
With the onset of industrialisation, the first genuine brands also appeared, mainly linked to the names of factories and the families that owned them. Only in the 1900s did brands with imaginative names, not immediately related to geographical or family origin, begin to appear.The industrial district as a whole has never promoted its high quality production in a coordinated manner.
The main promotional vehicles with any kind of structure were the trade fairs, firstly “Ideabiella” (which merged with the larger Milano Unica a few years ago) for fabrics, and “Filo” for yarns, aimed, however, at industry operators rather than final consumers.
Some companies have made investments to introduce their brands to a wider market, but gaining appreciation for semi-finished products such as yarns and fabrics has always been difficult. Brands that also produce clothing, and have therefore invested in advertising and promotion to sell their collections, have had greater success.
To survive global competition, which has accelerated incredibly over the past decade, the district has focussed on excellence in the production of yarns and fabrics in traditional materials (wool and high quality fibres, as well as vegetable fibres), redirecting its output towards the high and very high end of the market, with large investments aimed at achieving the highest quality. This has allowed retention of market shares in economic terms, despite a reduction in the quantities produced.
The specialised products of the district include yarns and fabrics of the highest quality, made using mainly Australian superfine wools and other special materials (cashmere, camel hair, alpaca, vicuña and mohair).
The main products include fabrics for men's and women's clothing, and yarns for weaving and knitting, as well as all the auxiliary processes related to the wool textile industry (combing, dyeing, finishing, etc.).
The first stage in the processing of fabrics made from wool or other natural animal fibres is combing, in which the fibres are “combed” to arrange them and remove the shorter ones. The fleeces are washed to eliminate natural animal fat and then passed through machines that position the fibres all in the same direction. The fibres are then carbonised to burn any existing impurities.
This is followed by spinning, in which the fibres are compressed, paired and twisted, becoming increasingly fine and narrow until a thread is obtained of the right thickness for the desired type of fabric.
After this comes the weaving process: the yarns are crossed over each other very tightly at right angles to form the warp and weft until the final fabric is obtained.
Finally, the raw fabric is finished, or “ennobled”, through washing, vaporising, shearing, mending and other treatments, to give the fabric its final appearance, free from impurities and imperfections, its lustre and so-called “hand”, making it suitable for the manufacture of garments and textiles for domestic or other uses.
Dyeing can be carried out at any time after the combing process. Some manufacturers produce their garments with fabrics in a base colour and then carry out further dyeing, which is known as “garment dyeing”. The earlier the dyeing process is carried out, the more stable the colour remains.
Current production is done entirely with the use of highly automated textile machinery. Nevertheless, the specialised workforce and the industrial expertise acquired by the workers in Biella is a fundamental component for obtaining the final quality of the products.
This knowledge has been built up over time and is not easy to “transplant” to other places; not surprisingly, the Biella textile district was studied at length during the 1980s and '90's in order to understand the secret of its success, but no-one has ever succeeded in recreating the excellence attained in this area elsewhere.
The Local Area
The textile activity in Biella developed over the centuries thanks to the features of the local area. The district covers an area of 915 km2, 41% of which consists of hills and 43% of mountains.
The local terrain favoured the breeding of livestock, particularly sheep, whose fleece was the starting point for the production of yarns and fabrics.
Another characteristic of the area is the presence of numerous watercourses with a very low fixed residue and a particularly low sodium and mineral content. This gives it its “lightness” and contributes significantly to the quality of the yarns and fabrics, as it does not weigh down the fibres, and it also enhances the softness, shine and “hand” of the products during finishing.
The number and capacity of the torrents was crucial in medieval times, and the factories developed close to them in order to take advantage of the water needed for the various processing stages. As the sector became industrialised, the water courses were also indispensable for generating the motion (and electricity) used by the new textile machinery.
The Biella area is therefore characterised by an urban planning layout based on the arrangement of the valleys and their respective water courses. Human and industrial settlements have respected the environment, creating a balance between urban development and nature of significant value. This symbiosis is one of the main factors of the high quality of life in the area, and also enhances it in terms of its tourist appeal.
As an example of the devotion of the inhabitants of Biella to their work, Italo Calvino, in his novel “Italian fairy tales”, describes a farmer who went to Biella for a deal, in spite of the rain and stormy weather.
As he went along the road, he met God under the guise of an old man. The Heavenly Father put the farmer’s faith to the test, and he twice provoked his anger because his concern for his work was greater than his fear of divine punishment.
By Camera di Commercio di Biella