The seasoned dressers reading this will doubtless know that the best linen cloth is weaved in one of two places: Ireland or northern Italy. Irish linen is often densely woven, chalky in the hand and surprisingly heavy for a warm-weather material, though very satisfying to wear in the spring. Italian linen, on the other hand, is softer, lighter and smoother to the touch. And prince among all makers of Italian linen is Solbiati.
Dating to 1874, Solbiati were founded in the town of Busto Arsizio by Michele Solbiati, who established the mill as an expert weaver of velvets, moleskins and fustians. The firm passed jointly through the hands of his three sons, on to a third-generation owner, and then a fourth: Vittorio Solbiati, who had the tricky task of guiding Solbiati through an economic low in the 1960s, a time when many Italian cotton mills were going bust.
The wily Vittorio knew something had to give. He pivoted to weaving luxury linen for fashion brands, promoting the benefits of natural fibres over the faddish rayons and synthetics that were then flooding the market. It was a gamble that paid off: today, the house specialises in luxury linen and cotton, and is known for everything from making the best seersucker to tropical worsteds in wool, silk and linen.
Vittorio certainly knew his stuff. Linen is something of a miracle fibre — even, dare I say, compared with wool. It’s breathable, absorbent, hypoallergenic and antibacterial. It has the highest tensile strength of any natural fibre (in fact, it ranks immediately after high-carbon steel in terms of strength), and its high cellulose content makes it resistant to shrinking, too. Linen also ranks highly in the sustainability stakes, thanks to the flax plant’s natural hardiness, from which linen fibre is harvested. Flax grows happily in water-poor soils and so requires little by way of irrigation or fertilisers. It’s also resistant to parasites and doesn’t need protecting with any nasty pesticides.