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By Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi
Francesco Truscelli is a kind of wooly royalty. For two centuries, his family has clothed the creme de la creme of society – from Princes to movie stars, Presidents to pop singers – with their savior-faire of fine wools.
Wool has been celebrated through the ages, from dressing to people of all nations and classes to regularly being used on the catwalks of prestigious designers from Chanel to Victoria Beckham.
And speaking of Ms Beckham, she, along with Miroslava Duma and Natalie Massenet, awarded this year’s Woolmark womenswear prize to designer Gabriela Hearst. The menswear category was won by Cottweiler’s Benn Cottrell and Matthew Dainty – the prize is something the Truscelli family also support.
This Italian Master of Wool knows the material like no other, and so it was an honour for me to sit down with him for an exclusive interview, focusing on the history of this noble fabric, its ethics and eco-friendliness, and of course, its future.
Wool has been used for centuries. What can you tell us about its use over history?
The civilisation of man walks hand in hand with wool. In fact, the term Babylonia means “Land of Wool.” This natural fibre marked the history nations and economies: the first economic transition made my humans was that of having a sheep in the family. The sheep provided man wool to clothe, and milk to feed.
When we realised that this material could be used for spinning, the first industry of the people was born: the textile industry. This created work for everyone because it allowed agriculture to evolve with farming, and it was one of the first steps in human development. We say the dog is man’s best friend, but we also owe that to sheep. Wolves were domesticated as pets. They used to attack sheep, but when men took them as puppies and trained them to look after the sheep, the first domesticated dog was born: the sheepdog.
Another theme connected to wool intertwines with Christian religion, where Abraham was a shepherd. His economy came from breeding sheep and selling their wool. And let’s not forget about Jason’s Golden Fleece and the Argonauts!
Your company boasts a five generation tradition. How did they get started as Masters of Wool?
My family’s origins come from Palermo. In Sicily, the first wool traders came to Europe, after they crossed the Mediterranean from the Middle East. The first weavers took on the Turkish tradition of the Damask design. This art form was then acquired by the region of Veneto, where tapestry established itself. At the end of the 19th century, my great-grandfather, Salvatore, opened the first shop in Prato and that was when part of my family started to establish itself in Tuscany.
Prato is the world hub of fashion and designers come to this town to study the art of weaving and knitwear. Francesco Di Marco Datini, born in Prato, was the greatest merchant of wool during the Middle Ages and his writings are still studied by historians and economists. As a matter of fact, the bestseller “The Merchant of Prato” by Iris Origo was inspired by his life.
My family has been in the wool business for about two centuries. My son, Enrico, who just recently joined the company, represents the sixth generation. We source our wool from all over the globe, mainly from Australia and New Zealand, as well as South Africa and South America, along with England and Spain. We use specific machines to work the wool; as the yarns spin, beautiful, soft and elegant clothes come to life.
Retracing my family history, I discovered that the wool tradition is even older than expected: my surname Truscelli means “small bales.” In ancient times, these were bolts of cloth that were placed in sacks on the saddles of horses, donkeys and camels, to balance weight during transportation. These small “torselli” would travel across the world to be placed in the various international markets, where skilful hands of women would work them into stupendous garments, tapestries, curtains, and bedcovers which would keep people warm in the winter and fresh in the summer. In fact, Berbers would wear wool in the desert. Wool has the great power of insulation too, and is used more and more nowadays in eco-homes.
How has your family’s company maintained an eco-friendly approach all this time?
My family always believed that the product had to be sustainable. The fibre must be conscious to man and to nature. Wearing wool means wearing nature, therefore we must be responsible in the way we manufacture. We know well that wearing wool will not harm people, actually it will protect them, as it has done for millennia. Recently wool is being developed in the medical field. New gauzes are being tested because this fabric is considered a safe fibre. Wool can also solve the problem of oil that spreads from stranded tankers. The power of absorption of wool can be absorbed by this extraordinary material, without harming the environment.
Apart from work, how has wool influenced your life?
Wool has lead me to discover the world and refine my culture, not only in the field of textile and clothing but also in the Art world. There are many artists who created eco-works using wool. For example Marjolein Dallinga creates Felt Sculptures that have been recently exhibited in the Textile Museum of Prato.
This world of wool is full of human warmth; I have developed international friendships that last from one generation to the next. Wool is peace and connects all people and nations. Selling wool takes you to a different dimension. For example, when it comes to domestic appliances it all comes down to numbers and price, it is not a necessity for humans. But the tactile trait of wool has a different effect on buyers. There are hundreds of types of wool that come from all over the world, which all get summed up in a final fabric. It is a complex work procedure that plunges you in a world where nature and art come together.
Recently you met Prince Charles at the Pitti Palace. What’s the connection between the Prince and wool?
Since 2010, His Royal Highness has been promoting his Campaign For Wool. He has an important role in the production of wool in the beautiful farm at Wimple Hall in Cambridgeshire, where he constantly goes to monitor the sheep that are being bred, which he personally selected to make the best wool. He decided to become a patron of wool worldwide, to fight against synthetic fibres, and those breeders and corporations who favour cheap fashion. Prince Charles told me that wool makers such as myself, are doing the right thing to help promote a healthy economy that is beneficial to man and nature, as well as elegance! He has even shown that when you bury a coat or a jumper made of Pure Wool, after two years it decomposes and blends with the soil, without harming the environment.
Synthetic fibres are mostly used in fashion because they are cheap, but are completely unsustainable: if you bury them in the ground they will stay intact forever, polluting our planet. PVC is used for these new fabrics as well as plastic bags that contaminate land and sea and cause the death of plants and fish. If we don’t stop the production of synthetic clothes, we will no longer know how to discard them without harming the Earth. If we don’t switch to natural products, we shall drown in plastic waste.
Wool, besides being 100% sustainable, helps the environment. Sheep graze on grass, keeping land active and healthy. The nitrogen they release helps to keep the environment green with a natural fertilisation. Wool is nature, and nature has truly taken care of everything!
How does the English tradition weave in with the production of wool?
England has been the nation that has mostly contributed to the development of the wool industry. The English people have had the greatest shepherding tradition for centuries. During the local and ancient tradition of breeding, in the colonies of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, they succeeded in cross-breeding to obtain merino wool, which is so soft and warm on the skin.
The British have made the noble fibre the emblem of a nation. The Woolsack, which is the seat of the Lord Speaker in the House of Lords, owes its name to George III who wanted to underline the fact that the Lords were sitting upon the largest economy of the nation. The Lord Chancellor was a wool merchant. Today, the Queen and Lords still wears the famous red mantle made out of 100% wool. This is because they are The Right Honourable and Temporal Lords. Spiritual power is determined by the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God that is embodied in the symbolism of the wool and the garments worn.
One must not forget that the Industrial Revolution was born in England, exactly in Bradford (Yorkshire) with the wool industry. The British have transformed a Medieval craft into an industrial business with mechanical looms and steam engines.
Your book, ‘The World of Animal Fibres’ talks about the spiritual benefits of wool. Can you explain?
Wool is a spiritual fibre, wearing it beautifies the soul, as it warmly embraces you. Wool represents nature transported on our bodies, connecting us with history and the culture of the people that produce it. Any woollen item can be recycled and given a new purpose, and wearing it makes you a conscientious being.
The book is the outcome of two years of research that I made with people in the wool industry. We wrote it to celebrate the 90th anniversary of our Italian organisation (Italian Wool Trade Association). This publication retraces the history of all animal fibre, from cashmere to alpaca, as well as vicuna, guanaco and silk. There’s also the history of textile districts, and it is important to know that wool became finer than cashmere – for example, merino sheep’s fibres are 10/11 microns, as opposed to the 13/14 in cashmere. The sheep that produces it has 54 chromosomes, whereas the goat that makes cashmere and mohair has 60. Even though they may seem like similar animals, who descend from the same ovis aries, throughout evolution they have genetically modified themselves naturally. In the book we explain all of this, so that the world can distinguish them, it retraces the evolution of breeds, production, distribution related to fibre in the world. It is important to be aware of what we are wearing!
When it comes to animal welfare, what do you think about PETA ?
I believe that organisations such as PETA are necessary to spread awareness towards the wellbeing of animals. On the other hand, it is important not to be extremist and check what industries truly respect the environment and its creatures. Often it has been said that sheep were ill-treated. I have worked in farms in England, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and America and I have never seen any animal disrespected.
Farmers love these creatures, because they are part of their family and provide their means of subsistence. None of them would harm their employer (that is what sheep are for all of us). The life of a farmer is intense, waking up at 5am and ending in the evening. On a farm, you live amongst sheep and dogs and both are man’s greatest friends. A sheep is an extremely intelligent animal that lives in an ecosystem that is healthy, where natural agriculture provides work to the entire rural area. I often get upset when I hear harsh accusations towards these farms. If there are cases of maltreatments those are exceptions, they are not the norm.
What do you think about people claiming animal cruelty when shearing?
Through my experience I can adamantly say that in shearing there is nothing that is particularly cruel. The animal is sheared with mechanical razors handled by experts. Shearers are people with an exceptional culture. Most of them are well-travelled and have a proficient education. The sheep needs to be sheared, it is a simple process, just like when men shave their beards and women remove their bodily hair. I sheared some sheep and have observed this procedure for weeks and I never saw any animal being traded badly. This is a tradition that goes back to Noah and has never harmed sheep, it is something necessary for them.
Which celebrity initiatives do you admire for being influential in promoting the sustainability of wool?
The father of actor Colin Firth used to produce carpets as floor coverings in pure wool, whereas his wife Livia Firth promotes conscious designers through her platforms. Recently Naomi Watts has made some commercials for Woolmark and gave all the proceeds to charity. I think these people are helping the wool industry, which still needs a lot of support. Living in a sustainable world requires a collective effort, and those who spread this message are helping all of humanity.
What should one look for when purchasing wool clothing?
It is very important to look at the label inside each garment and not to be deceived by the softness of the fabric. If there are synthetic fibres such as polyester and acrylic that can be mistaken for wool, just reject the garment!
What are the benefits of wool over say, cashmere or alpaca?
There are many important benefits: you help the future of Mother Nature as well as breeders and their families. If these people had no income because no one buys wool, new generations will be forced to abandon these beautiful natural territories that will eventually be abandoned. Wool nurtures a healthy industry that favours the environment and transmits to our children a positive message. In fact, several sportswear items are now being made out of wool instead of synthetic fabrics. It is also important to know that while washing wool, you obtain lanolin, which is used in most natural skincare and beauty products, renowned for its extraordinary emulative properties that rejuvenate the skin.
Are younger generations receptive to your teachings on the ethics of wool?
When we talk with young people they are very attentive. In schools, I tried to teach the cycle of wool and the way new generations can embrace techniques to enhance sustainability. Sometimes (young people) may go for a less ethical piece of clothing because it’s in fashion, but they should focus their attention on something that will improve the world of tomorrow. As I have explained in various occasions, also on television, wool is an extraordinary journey that connects you with the most fascinating countries and inhabitants. It is an ancient fibre that is also projected into the future. If you love nature, you wear wool.
All fashion images: Woolmark All other images courtesy Francesco Truscelli