A thick fog decends over the Piemonte countryside as I arrive in the Biellese Alps, the heart of Italy's famed textile-producing industry. I'm here to visit Vitale Barberis Canonico, the legendary producer of fabrics for Savile Row tailors with over 350 years of history.
The inspiration for these new ranges can come from anywhereFrancesco Barberis Canonico
Like most people, my attention is usually focused on the label inside the garment, rather than what it's actually stitched onto. Today is a rare chance to see inside the production process, from combed wool to finished fabric.
It's also a chance to meet an expert design team who are the key creative force behind the seasonal collections of many of the world's great fashion labels.
In short, I'm meeting the designers behind the designers.
On the factory floor
As I climb the top of a winding road in the town of Pratrivero, I'm expecting to visit a small, artisanal factory. The last thing I expect is a nine-level, 46,000-square-metre warehouse.
My first stop is the raw materials warehouse. Hundreds of bales of Australian merino wool confirm that you can't do without this one ingredient if you want to make the world's best fabric. This particular lot is from the company's three sheep farms outside Mudgee.
Next it's on to the automated dyeing department, where dozens of stainless steel vats operate 24 hours per day. This is followed by enormous drying, spinning, and high-tech warping machines that use laser sensors to wind thousands of barely visible threads precisely onto huge beams.
Fruit of the loom
After being shown through numerous floors where everything quietly whirrs away, I'm handed earplugs to see Vitale Barberis Canonico's renowned air-jet looms. Last year the 90 looms on this floor made eight million metres of fabric.
Even with the earplugs in the noise is fierce, but my guide tells me that before advances in technology, to be on this floor was like standing next to an assault rifle pumping out rounds.
While the factory floors are filled with the most sophisticated fabric-making machinery, human nous and an expert eye are still indispensable.
Nowhere is this more so than in the checking of the cloth. Every metre of every fabric is run past a well-trained eye skilled at spotting a torn thread, a nub of unwanted yarn or a glitch in the pattern. If the flaw can be corrected it will be done by the equally skilled hands of those trained in the precision craft of re-weaving.
Colours and patterns
"I'm always fascinated by how one colour combination after another produces different effects," muses Francesco Barberis Canonico, who heads up the company's style division.
Although the company has built a reputation as the most English of all the Italian mills (because of its tradition of weaving very dense cloth in classic patterns), Barberis Canonico says this image is changing.
"We've done a bit of experimenting and I think we've found a good balance in our range of offerings. Between 70 to 80 per cent of any seasonal collection will be our fine classic cloths. But each season now, 20 to 30 per cent will be new fabrics with some eccentricity ... a bit more excitement about them, as well as elegance."
So just how is a fabric range developed?
"The inspiration for these new ranges can come from anywhere," Francesco says. "From a painting, flowers in a neighbour's garden, a sample of writing paper, to the latest luxury car. The important thing is not to stifle creativity and to consider ideas wherever we find them."
I can't help thinking that when he looks at the latest Ferrari he likes what he sees, given that his company produces interior fabrics for the world's most famous sports car manufacturer.
While the company is increasingly producing more non-traditional fabrics, it is also making good use of its extensive archives dating back to the late 19th century. With the return to classicism continuing to drive menswear design, these annals are being increasingly scrutinised to see how certain colours and patterns from the early-to-mid 20th century might translate into new lightweight fabrics.
The human element
While the unrelenting high-tech activity on the factory floors power Vitale Barberis Canonico forward, the samples in the company's archives are proving just as powerful.
"We have a legacy here about cloth, so that actually working with the fibres, the yarn, and the cloth itself produces an imaginative response that you can't get from a print out or from looking at a computer screen," Francesco says.
"This direct contact with the product instills a creative cycle where experience leads to inspiration, which in turn produces more experience and then further creativity. For us, it's just one of those places where we have made the decision to trust the human element above the technology."
Jeremy Loadman travelled from Florence to the Biellese Alps as a guest of the Woolmark Company.