Vitale Barberis
Canonico : The
Immortals of
Cloth Making

Sonya Glyn NICHOLSON

Vitale Barberis Canonico (VBC) : The Immortals of Cloth Making

You probably have VBC fabrics in your closet right now.

The company now produces 8 million meters of fabric each year, used to make more than 2.5 million jackets and suits and has introduced 4,000 patterns and colors of fabric last year alone.

With its sister company Drapers in Bologna providing fabric for bespoke and custom-made ateliers across the world and Vitale Barberis Canonico selling directly to a large number of ready-to-wear manufacturers, the operation is one of most far-reaching fabric companies in the world.

CHOOSING A SUIT FABRIC CAN BE (STRANGELY) EXCITING

Stepping into an atelier or made-to-measure shop with the mission to find a fabric for a new suit creates a strong first impression.

Like a ransacked library, with swatch books scattered around on bookshelves, chairs and tables—the dizzying disarray of these books feels like choosing just one fabric out of thousands is an act of divinity more than that an act of making an informed choice.

However, on the flip side, ordering a suit on the internet or buying off-the-peg is a totally different experience.

At one time, practically nobody cared about the “type of fabric” that was being used to make garments. Most people  just wanted to look good and feel good in their clothes. Shopping online or buying off-the-rack suits seemed fast and easy compared to designing your own suit and waiting patiently for it to be handmade. But nowadays, consumers think differently about RTW items…with the ‘sartorial media explosion’ educating us to pay attention to things like what kind of fabric is used to make the clothes we buy.

If you’ve ever bought something made of poor quality fabric, you probably remember tiny balls of “pilling” accumulating by the hundreds and clinging to the fabric surface, especially around the wrist-area of the garment. Very annoying! Not to mention picks/scratches and broken threads and colors fading and losing their intensity, which practically forces us to start paying attention to whether the raw materials (fabric) in the clothes we buy are good or not, if we want our clothing to have longevity.

For reasons mentioned above, selecting quality fabrics (don’t hesitate to ask your suit seller) can help you avoid the ‘let-down’ of finding a great suit only later to discover that the suit is ruined because it was made with fabric of deficient quality. And in the end it is prudent to learn about fabrics that you like, read labels, and ask questions to make sure you are buying good quality raw materials.

In terms of high end fabrics, you may notice that VBC wools are often a little softer than many others. That’s because VBC works with the part of the Australian sheep wool that is particularly difficult and more costly to clean and comb, but nonetheless has softer and fluffier properties than usual (this is why VBC flannels in particular are so tempting).

This method of wool selection has been one of the VBC secrets of creating alluring fabrics that look beautiful to the eye and feel especially good against the skin. And really, no matter how beautiful a fabric is, if it is scratchy and uncomfortable to the touch, especially in regard to tweeds, then there is an annoyance factor with such tactile deficiency.

Good prices/great fabrics with no “elitist” marketing crap is kind of refreshing coming from a company whose been around for so long and could easily position themselves as an elitist product. The point is that label names just aren’t as important as they used to be, as buyers are mostly interested in the quality of the product itself—bad news for marketing departments but good news for companies who mainly focus on producing high quality products.

THE OLDEST MILL ON EARTH

To relate to the VBC story, it helps to know a little bit about how cloth is made. Here’s a quick run-down, beginning with a big herd of sheep lining up for their annual haircut:

Shearing – Around once a year (usually when it’s warm), sheep are gathered and sheared. Between six and 18 pounds of wool has been recorded to be harvested per sheep.

Grading – Raw wool is graded based on quality (usually depending on where the animal is from). Wool grades are grouped, compressed and packed into ‘bundles’.

Scouring – Before spinning, wool is cleaned to remove dirt, grease and sweat through washing, rinsing and drying. Lanolin “grease” is sometimes extracted and used for the cosmetic industry products.

Carding – Fleece is run through rotating cylinders with wire teeth to tease out individual fibers and remove debris to prepare wool.

Combing – Shorter fibers called noils are removed and longer fibers are lined up with one another in a sliver, which is then formed into a rounded ball or top.

Dyeing – Sometimes fibers are dyed at this point, other times the dyeing can be part of the finishing process (below)

Spinning – Fibers are twisted into long continuous threads called yarn, so to eventually become worsted cloth.

Weaving – Two sets of threads are used in two directions (warp and weft). The warp threads are set into the loom, all in a vertical direction. Different colored and varying numbers of weft threads are then woven up and under the set warp threads.

Fulling – Cloth is at times cleaned and thickened through another washing process, sometimes reducing the size of a piece of cloth by up to a third.

Finishing – The nap (finish) of a cloth is sometimes further refined through bleaching or dyeing.

Inspecting – A serious step of quality control. Fabric is checked with magnifying devices and either accepted, refined, or rejected.

Anyone would be hard pressed to name a cloth mill producer that has been around longer than Vitale Barberis Canonico with 3 1/2 continuous centuries of producing wool fabrics (without interruption).

Leagues of fabric mills have shut down in Italy since the 1660s, but VBC has never shut its doors since its inception. The company has had to withstand World Wars, famines, and financial downturns over the centuries which has created a great depth of character within the VBC family and its employees…a depth that is rarely seen today.

No less than 13 generations of family members have operated and grown the company to its current position. That’s a lot of longevity that puts VBC in a position to build on its know-how, introducing  thousands of new fabrics each year with a host of historical cloth replicated as well.

In a day when a long-lost family member who worked as a shoe-shiner a century ago can be named as the founding father of a shoe company, the story of VBC’s feels as pure as the clear waters that run through Northern Italy that are used to wash their fabrics. These revered waters are a part of the great advantages of the VBC location in Biella, Italy, where ultra pure water is vital in order to preserve the brilliance of cloth color and prevent adulteration of the whitest whites.

For anyone who likes more details, an elaborated history of Vitale Barberis Canonico is presented below under further reading.

VBC LOVES FABRICS : THE ARCHIVES

On February 14th of this year, VBC celebrated the opening of its own historical  “Archives” library, located right in the VBC’s mill in Pratrivero, near Biella.

The Archives showcase big, beautiful volumes of fabric swatches collected from the last two centuries—including historical fabrics made by VBC and swatches from iconic and closed mills from around the world that are renowned for their unique design or popularity.

With at least 1,200 Swatches cataloged and dating from 1876 until now, Mr. Danilo Craveia has overseen the project and is in the process of making a digital record of all the swatches to make them accessible online ! The result is a rich source that permanently captures visuals of some stunning historical fabric pieces that otherwise may have been lost…

THE MAN BEHIND THE CLOTH : FRANCESCO BARBERIS CANONICO

Meet Francesco Barberis Canonico, creative director of the world’s oldest cloth mill in the world, who directs multiple VBC operations in Biella, Italy, along with family members Alessandro and Lucia Bianchi Maiocchi.

Francesco is energy on legs. Generous by nature and ruthlessly honest, to catch an hour with him is a minor miracle as he guards his time and is usually in motion.

But if you manage to spend some real time with him, Francesco’s astute mind will reveal itself in staccato rhythm and after a somewhat short time, you understand the music of his mood and an air of relaxation settles in upon the conversation.

While having the pleasure to share a lunch with Francesco at a remote outdoor Italian cafe, our group poses for a moment while our waiter snaps a group photo. As we raise our glasses for the camera, Francesco has the idea to send a ‘ toast ‘ to our mutual New Yorker dear friend G. Bruce Boyer as a greeting from Pratrivero, Italy.

Without notice, the Pizza waiter from a nearby restaurant is standing at the end of our table, belting out an Opera number in a resounding bass voice that is so beautiful that I am mortified to find I’m in tears by the end of the song.

Francesco has a boyish charm and a to-the-point style that keeps everyone engaged in the conversation. Yet, he is restless, which somehow works to his advantage in that his employees (some of them 3rd or 4th generation) and most everyone around him seems to feed off of his energy.  Forget stagnant corporate mentality. Never mind playing-it-safe. In the air is a combination of common sense mixed with discreet old-money style. The focus? Always have a project…if you’re not moving forward, that’s when you’re falling backwards.

Francesco’s current tenure at VBC is an exciting time to be part of the 350 year old company, since it has been the last 40 years that has seen the greatest leap in quality in the caliber of VBC cloth, with a keen attention to meeting or surpassing the quality of most every cloth available on the market. Being a business strictly dedicated to fabric production for so long, it is no wonder that we see as many as 4,000 fabric designs introduced each year…no small feat.

Under the current direction of Alessandro and Francesco Barberis Canonico and Lucia Bianchi Maiocchi, the VBC business continues to prosper. My impression after visiting the Pratrivero location, is that VBC is serious about making exceptional products and seems to really care about treating employees like a type of extended family… a sort of old money style that emanates genuine kindness.

This very singular way of doing business is probably at the heart of VBC’s worldwide success and recognition.

INTRODUCING : THE VBC FABRIC ACADEMY

We are now launching on Parisian Gentleman a new series entitled  “The VBC Fabric Academy”, where we will highlight with each feature one plain weave and one fancy VBC or Drapers fabric and tell the full story behind the cloth.

Please stay tuned as our first cloth to highlight will most likely be the “Prince of Wales” Superb Saxony “350th Invincible” fabric from Vitale Barberis Canonico.

And for the most recent breaking news: Vitale Barberis Canonico, at the latest auction of mohair in Port Elizabeth (South-Africa), bought the two best mohair bales reaching the highest ever paid price of R632.00/kg and R600.00/kg respectively. The emphasis was especially on the high quality super fine kid goats with good length, super style and finesse. A promising development to follow indeed !

Hugo Jacomet and Sonya Glyn Nicholson

 

 VBC Website : http://www.vitalebarberiscanonico.com

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further reading

VBC TIMETABLE

(1663 Setting) – This year marks the death of Franciscan Friar Joseph of Copertino, who is said to have had the supernatural ability to levitate himself. Just 30 years prior to Copertino’s death, we find that Galileo has been placed under Papal authority house-arrest for his writings asserting that the earth moves around the sun).

1663 – A fee is paid by the family to the local feudatory with a cloth of saia grisa/grey grisaglie that has been made in the Pratrivero region. This medieval fee of cloth (which was common at the time to pay fees with goods instead of currency) was paid to launch the fabric business. This transaction date marks the founding date of the company.

In the meantime, Ajmo Barberis is taking full advantage of the shearing potential of the vast amount of grazing sheep in the Northern Italy and his plans involve expanding the scope of spinning wool, weaving cloth, and selling his fabric to local and major markets.

Mid 1700s – In a timeframe sandwiched between a Spanish invasion of Naples in the early 1700s and a great famine in Italy in the late 1700s, the humble operation steadily moves forward. Ajmo’s direct descendants, John Anthony and Joseph secure a competitive bid to supply cloth to the Italian military. This is the largest order to date and the additional income will allow the family business to expand and further develop its know-how. Soon after, a license as “a manufacturer of woolen stuff” is granted, allowing the business to place its signature onto fabrics, which greatly elevates the status of the fabric. The brothers’ business begins to flourish and new lands are purchased for expansion.

Mid 1800s – A new alliance with the factory Maurizio Stella is formalized in order to produce enough fabric to meet demand. Then, in 1868, we see the first mechanical looms in place to weave cloth and progressive refinement of the dyeing, fulling and spinning processes. As the end of the century approaches, the mill can now claim 800 spindles and 73 looms.

1900s – Electricity arrives in 1908 and Giuseppe Barberis Canonico opens a full-cycle factory in Pratrivero, Italy. The expansion opens the international market in 1915 with textiles shipped to the Americas, the Indies, and as far as China.

Demand grows and in 1921, Joseph inaugurates two factories that he christens with the name Orestes (Protrivero)  and Vitale Barberis Canonico. Fortunately, the Great Depression of the U.S.A. does not seem to affect the success of the mill, with demand for fabric even increasing during this period.

The 1930s presents a more challenging scenario with Italian Fascism in full force. The stress of the times results in the association between Vitale Barberis Canonico and Orestes being dissolved in 1936. It is at this time, that the name Vitale Barberis Canonico is formally assigned to the mill.

Mid 1900s – In 1947, the strategic decision is taken to dramatically increase fabric quality, placing a high value on customer relationships. About two decades later in 1970, Barberis descendants Alberto and Luciano transform the company into a public company.

2000s – The year 2008 marks a transfer of the Vitale Barberis Canonico helm to Alessandro and Francesco Barberis Canonico and Lucia Bianchi Maiocchi.

Vitale Barberis Canonico continues the tradition of 350 years of uninterrupted family business, sustaining their location in the region of Pratrivero, Northern Italy.