Everything you need to know about the Wool Industry in Tuscany
Recently we have published an article about the history and importance of the first wool mills in the Bisenzio Valley. From the Arte della Lana originated in Medieval times, to the actual situation where Prato is the capital of the recycled wool production. Now, let’s get deeper into the world of sheep’s wool processing in this area.
Italian Wool Mills: the alchemy of Prato
Wool processing has been one of the most representative traditions of the Prato area, due to a combination of factors.
- The city benefits from a strategic location in the heart of Italy, with direct communication to both the north and south.
- The area is full of sparkling waters coming from the Appennino mountains.
- Tuscan merchants have always had a keen eye for the finest raw materials.
- The city has been able to maintain artisanal techniques of excellence even in industrial production.
- Here the techniques are something well-chained to the know-how passed down from generation to generation.
- Natural fibers: Italy has a long tradition in trade, which has enabled the easy availability of the best raw materials, particularly natural fibers, coming from all around the world. This facilitated the development of the manufacturing industry, especially the textile industry.
- Water: the presence of streams and rivers that were instrumental to the fulling and washing processes. The fast-flowing waters of rivers like Biella’s Cervo and Oropa, or Prato’s Bisenzio were ideal. This contributed to the development of textile hubs in those places.
- Expertise: a long history of textile manufacturing and tailoring. Italy has been producing fabrics and grments since the Middle Ages, gaining centuries of experience. Especially in towns like Prato, Biella, and Bergamo, textile expertise was passed down through generations.
Custom wool processing
Wool processing is an activity that has ancient roots, developed over the centuries thanks to high-quality raw materials, proven techniques and the ability of local artisans to transform raw fibers into fine fabrics.
What are the stages of the wool industry as a whole? The wool supply chain in the Prato district involves several actors, each of whom plays a specific role in the production process.
Let’s start from the beginning. The wool from one sheep is called a fleece. Fleeces are often categorized by the quality and fineness of the wool fibers. Finer wools generally come from breeds like Merino and command higher prices.
Sheep wool suppliers
The quality of wool depends on the breed of sheep, the grass, the climate and the care and husbandry practices employed by the farmer. Companies that produce and sell the best raw material, namely raw wool, mostly come from countries like Australia, New Zealand and Argentina. Wrongly considered something apart from the wool industry, this stage is essential to deliver excellent products. Sheeps are typically raised on sheep farms or ranches, where they are fed, watered, and cared for.
How much wool does a sheep produce?
The average adult sheep produces about 10 to 20 pounds of wool per year. This amount can vary based on breed, gender, nutrition, climate, etc. Most sheep need only one shearing per year, although some breeds with faster growing fleece will need to be sheared at least twice. The average fleece of a sheep weighs between 8 and 12 pounds. A Merino sheep will produce an average of 10-15 pounds of wool per year.
The wool is harvested from the sheep through a process called shearing. Removing wool from a sheep is a skilled job that requires experience and training to work quickly and efficiently without harming the sheep. The process involves restraining the sheep, using shears to remove the wool in a single piece, and then baling the wool for shipping.
Sorting and grading
After shearing, the fleece is cleaned, sorted and graded based on its quality (fineness), fibers color, and fiber length. Common grades include Fine, Medium, Downs, and Braid. Finer grades like Fine and Superfine Merino have thinner fiber diameters of less than 24 microns. Coarser grades may have diameters over 32 microns and produce heavier fabrics like carpets and outerwear. These fine wools produce lightweight, soft fabrics.
Sorting is typically done by hand, with experienced workers carefully examining each fleece and separating it into different grades based on quality. That’s why this stage is important in determining the value and quality of the wool. The wool is then graded based on fiber diameter, staple length, strength, crimp, and overall quality. Objective measurement tools like laser scanning are used along with subjective grading by experienced wool classers.
Here are some of the main parameters:
- Staple length is measured and fleeces are grouped according to length. Longer staple wools are more desirable for spinning yarn.
- Strength refers to how well the wool resists breaking. Stronger fibers can undergo more processing without damage.
- Crimp refers to the natural waviness of the wool fibers. A higher number of crimps per inch indicates finer wool.
Scouring and drying
The sorted and graded wool is then processed to clean and prepare it for use. It is washed to remove any dirt, grease, or other impurities. This process, known as scouring, involves soaking the wool in hot water (140°F – 60°C) and detergent, then rinsing it several times to ensure that all the impurities have been removed. The detergents help emulsify and remove the lanolin grease that makes up 5-30% of the weight of a fleece before scouring.
After rinsing, the wool goes through a press to extract excess water and a drying process to reduce the moisture content.
Scouring allows the wool fibers to be properly straightened, blended and spun into yarn. It brings out the natural whiteness, softness and other qualities of the wool.
After scouring, carding aligns and separates the wool fibers, removing any residual short fibers, vegetation or other impurities left. Once done with the precious help of the
Carduus flower, in untangled manually the fibers, today the wool goes through a series of carding machines containing moving belts or rollers covered with fine metal teeth or pins.
The teeth untangle the fibers and arrange them into a continuous web or sliver with the fibers roughly parallelized. The carding process combines several sub-steps using specific machines:
- Breaker carding lightly cards the wool into a loose continuous sheet.
- Intermediate carding further refines the fibers into a thinner web.
- Finisher carding combs the fibers into a uniform, aerodynamically efficient sliver.
The processed wool is then spun into yarn using spinning machines. The yarn can be spun into different weights, depending on the intended use.This stage involves twisting the fibers together to create a continuous strand of yarn. The spinners companies that process raw wool into yarn usually are responsible for some of the previous stages too. Spinners, using special machinery such as comb spinning machines, carding machines and twisting machines, deliver the filato (yarn).
Weaving or knitting
The yarn is then woven or knitted into fabric. This stage involves using looms or needles to create the desired texture and pattern. The companies that produce textiles using wool yarns, looms and weaving machinery are called weavers. At the end of this process we have textiles that are ready for clothing production.
After the fabric has been woven or knitted, it undergoes additional processing, such as dyeing, felting, brushing or pressing, to give it the desired texture and appearance. The companies involved in dyeing fabrics, using dyes and chemicals to achieve the desired color, are called tanners. Finishing gives textiles the desired texture, appearance, and durability.
Those are the companies that use wool fabrics produced by Menchi to create garments such as coats, jackets, pants and sweaters.
As you probably know, here at Menchi we are weavers and tanners.
How wool is processed: the machinery behind the wool industry
As for the machinery needed, it depends on the type of business conducted. Spinners use comb spinning machines, carding machines and twisting machines, while weavers use looms and weaving machinery. Tanners use machinery for dyeing fabrics, while garment manufacturers use machines for making garments.
Learning how wool is processed is something that goes behind machinery. The workers are essential in the whole process. These include the workers in the spinning and weaving mills, the skilled technicians who maintain the machinery, the designers who create the garment patterns, and the salespeople who market the fabrics and garments produced.
Prato: the Heart of Italian Wool Mills
As we have introduced at the beginning, Prato’s reputation in the wool industry is built on a foundation of skilled workers who process wool with unmatched precision. They are the backbone of the city’s thriving textile industry. This expertise is particularly on display in the numerous small wool processing mills, where quality and attention to detail are paramount.
The city’s mills are known for producing high-quality Italian wool, which is used in a variety of products, from luxurious Italian wool suits and elegant Italian wool coats to cozy Italian wool blankets.
The importance of being a district
How is the wool processed in Prato?
Being a city of traders (once called mercanti), here the wool processing journey starts with the sorting of raw wool based on factors such as wool type, color, and quality. After cleaning, the carding wool process takes place. In Prato’s mills it is a blend of tradition and innovation, where skilled workers use both hand carders and advanced machines to achieve the perfect texture.
The Pratese custom Wool Processing
Prato’s mills are known for their custom wool processing services. They work closely with clients to create bespoke woolen fabrics that meet specific requirements. This ability to provide custom services sets Prato apart in the global wool industry.
The high-quality wool processed in Prato goes into making superior Italian wool products. Whether it’s a tailored Italian wool suit for men, a stylish Italian wool coat womens line, or a warm Italian wool blanket, each product reflects the city’s commitment to quality and craftsmanship.
In 1824, Giovan Battista Mazzoni, started the development of the wool weaving industry that specialized in regenerated wool. At those times recycled wool was made from rags or scraps imported through the port of Livorno. The rags were selected and transformed into carded fabrics by blending regenerated wool with virgin wool, producing competitively priced and high-quality products. Mazzoni did it by building the first machine for carding and spinning.
That is why recycled wool is nothing new here. Regenerated wool, also called Prato wool, has been produced in the Prato Textile District for more than two centuries.
The district now boasts around 9,000 mainly family-run small wool processing mills and textile companies, demonstrating how market evolution does not interrupt tradition. These artisans, skilled in weaving, dyeing, and spinning, are highly appreciated worldwide for their ability to combine ancient art with cutting-edge techniques.
In conclusion, when you think of wool in Italy, Prato should be the first city that comes to mind.
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