During the Summer Pitti Uomo a few weeks ago, cloth mill VBC (Vitale Barberis Canonico) held a great open-air event in the center of Florence on the splendid Loggia Del Porcellino, in partnership with the famous Florentine store Eredi Chiarini.
The title of this 'happening event' to which almost the entire trade was invited, can be described as provocative, with the name being: “21 Micron”.
The title may not mean much to the layperson or to someone unfamiliar with the codes of cloth making. In fact, an unknowing audience may mistakenly think the name of the event aspired to a sense of vanity—to glorify yet another highly experimental wool, woven by one of the world's oldest mills.
It would have been an easy mistake to make, as we've been witnessing a true arms race within the cloth industry. In the past decade, there has been a tacit competition to see whom can produce, market, and sell the most precious and finest thread (and, incidentally, most fragile cloth). Numbers like Super 200s, Super 220s, and Super 240s emerged to confuse even the most astute of us.
PG discussions on the matter have been exploratory and have generated passionate viewpoints among connoisseurs, with PG Contributor Dirnelli writing two contradictory articles on the subject – one denouncing the marketing nonsense promoting high super numbers in the cloth industry (see "Dispelling myths about the significance of super numbers"), and the other admitting that some of the highest grade "supers" have undeniable merits in terms of aesthetics (see "Dirnelli's further secrets of high super numbers).
So before commenting on the "21 Micron" campaign by VBC, which takes a contrarian stance on the whole “Super numbers race”, let's cover a few fundamentals.
The following is from a 2010 PG article by Paul Grassart, who explains the basics to tackle the complex subject of Super Numbers:
The "Super" moniker is used to designate the finesse of the wool fiber, that is to say, its average diameter. The higher the number, the thinner the fiber. Fiber diameter is measured in microns – a millionth of a meter (which means there are 1000 microns in a millimeter).To put things in perspective, a human hair is about 50 to 60 microns!
The International Wool Textile Organization, known for its "Woolmark" label, codified Supers according to the following scale :
Throughout history, in different countries, wool was classified according to various systems. The "Super" system is derived from the Bradford system – also known as the English Worsted Yarn Count System, Spinning Count, or Bradford Count.
Do note that this system only concerns worsted wool, however. Woolen cloths depend on another system entirely !
Wool experts from the city of Bradford evaluated the wool (by the eye and by the touch) in order to estimate the number of skein of 560 yards (i.e., 500 meters of a single thread) that could be produced from one pound of "top" by an experienced mill. A "top" is washed, carded and combed wool with all fibers aligned and ready to be spun.
Back in the years the professionals were thus talking of 36s or 44s wool quality (i.e.; 36 or 44 skeins of 560 yards produced out of one pound of "top"). This is, by the way, the origin of the small "s" that is used nowadays after the number (like in "Super 100s") : "s" means "skein". The finest wools, in the past, were reaching 80 skeins (80s) i.e.; almost 25 miles of thread produced out of a single pound of wool!
The first ceiling of this system was the 80s which was qualified as fine wool. Later when some wools reached a new fineness level of 100 skeins per pound (i.e.; more than 31 miles of thread), it was considered to be wool of exceptional fineness, and was referred to as super fine wool or Super 100s. That's the origin of the word "Super".
In comparison to the Supers, here are the diameters of different qualities:
As you can see, the above chart refers to "blood system", an American classification dating back to when the first Merino sheep was introduced in North America. The Merino race was known for producing the finest wool among all sheep races, yet in an attempt to increase livestock headcount, producers cross-bred Merino sheeps with local species.
A "pure blood" sheep produced a Grade A wool qualified as "fine". But, cross-breeding with another race of sheep would, depending on the degree of cross-breeding, diminish the quality of the wool, resulting in "half-blood", "3/8 blood", and "quarter blood" qualities, for instance.
Still, in accordance with the viewpoint of Vitale Barberis Canonico, the fineness of a wool is merely one component that indicates the quality of a wool. The sheep's race is also a criteria. Here is a small chart detailing the main characteristics of key wool-producing races of sheep (raised for wool and not for food).
Ever since "Super XXXs" became a marketing term, cloth mills and companies strived to produce and sell the finest – in the literal sense of the term – wool possible. Auctions routinely fetch absurd prices on the high-level bolts of cloth. The biggest actors in this very competitive market segment are the Italian companies Loro Piana and Ermenegildo Zegna, who hold contests to reward farmers who produce the finest wool.
Obviously, this race for finesse can't go on forever, as we are reaching the limitations to what an animal can produce. It's worth remembering that, in natural conditions, a merino sheep produces 80s fibers, and it may not be possible to progress further in current breeding conditions.
This extreme fineness strategy and the Super Numbers heavy promotion by Italian and British cloth mills was also their answer to a crucial question : how to stay ahead of the curve, in order to keep the edge against new competitors coming from China and India ?
But of course this edge has been temporary : China now produces more than a third of the wool worldwide, with the country becoming the biggest customer of several Australian and New-Zealand farms, as Chinese mills are nowadays capable of producing some extremely fine cloth (Super 180s, Super 200s).
Through their "21 Micron" campaign, VBC decided to answer this crucial question with a resounding "No".
The message the campaign conveys is simple : It's important to focus on the actual quality and technical characteristics of the cloth, rather than solely on the "Super" number. It's also a bid to affirm that full bodied cloths also have merits – most notably in terms of durability, crease resistance, and all-around aesthetics.
At PG we agree with these arguments because as we have learned, wool quality does indeed depend on much more criteria than only fiber finesse.Remember we are not wearing pelts of untreated wool – but pieces of clothing made with fabric. Between fiber and fabric, the road is long and highly complex : fibers are washed, carded, combed, worsted, dyed, stretched and finally woven. Out of the mill, the fabric still has a long way to go to become usable – the fabric will undergo many finishing treatments, sometimes including another washing session (while preserving the natural lanolin in the wool), shrinkage considerations, and a variety of treatments affecting the feel of the cloth...
These steps are crucial to obtain the best "hand" possible for the fabric. The finesse of the fiber is but one of the many factors which matters when gauging the objective qualities of a piece of wool—which is why some of the most popular VBC fabrics use "21 Micron" fibers to make fabrics that, though they don't carry the "Super" moniker, are still high quality fabrics —like the “4-Ply Twist-Spring”, the "Country Weave", or the famous "Hopsack" fabrics, which we love here at PG.
Fabrics don't always require fine fiber diameter to provide a good look-and-feel, and further, thicker fibers can prevent many of the classic defects of ultra-fine fabrics like creasing at the knees and elbows. Thicker fibers are also generally sturdier and travel better than suits made with fine fibers..
Style aficionados, both beginners and grizzled veterans, are more and more educated on what they buy. And many laypersons are (re)discovering and appreciating the joy of bespoke and made-to-measure, including the sheer pleasure of choosing a type and a pattern of fabric.
Thus, the "21 Micron" initiative by our friends at VBC is a great reminder that one does NOT need to invest a fortune in order to buy a good quality fabric for his next suit.Duly noted.