Those among us whose first visit to a reputable atelier was made relatively recently will recall the frisson of enchantment on being handed the swatch books. Beholding the plethora of options peeping out from beneath each other, and feeling the pleasant excruciation that comes with a deluge of choice, is how it starts. But it’s the tactile experience that follows that really stays with you after that inaugural visit: running a finger along the diagonal ribs of a fine herringbone, one cannot but marvel at humanity’s progression, in less than 2,000 years — a fraction of a millimetre on the skirting board of human history — from course flax smocks made with the earliest foot-powered looms to the extraordinary cloths from which a man has his best garments cut today.
And that’s just us customers. To pinch a phrasal verb from tailoring parlance, wool fabric, more than ever before, ‘makes up well’, which means it behaves at the tailor’s, cutter’s and finisher’s behest. It’s obedient in taking shape and undergoes all the steaming, shrinking, stretching and moulding involved without looking like it’s been through — excuse the pun — the mill. So the burning question is: why is wool fabric of such a high calibre so widely available to the sartorially inclined in 2017?
The biologically disposed will point out that the story begins with natural selection. Wool is an evolutionary marvel that, whatever the climes in which it grazes, regulates the body temperature of the docile mammals on which it constantly replenishes itself. An invaluable natural resource since sheep were first domesticated around 10,000 years ago, wool is durable, absorbent and uncannily strong. If palatable artificial meat sounds like an unrealistic goal, an authentic synthetic wool replacement is, frankly, a pipe dream.
The expertise that takes over from here has accumulated over several hundred generations, while a graph depicting the technical sophistication involved, naturally, has a sharp upturn with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution (a warm-weather suit at the turn of the 21st century weighed less than half what it did at the turn of the 20th). And a one-stop shop for discovering just how far we’ve come is Vitale Barberis Canonico’s site in Pratrivero, near Biella, around 90 minutes’ drive from Milan.