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From Fiber to Yarn

Mila Zegna Baruffa, communications director of the Italian yarn manufacturer bearing her family’s name, is on a mission to get Americans to read clothing labels as copiously as they read food labels. <br><br>She wants them to not only look at...

Mila Zegna Baruffa, communications director of the Italian yarn manufacturer bearing her family’s name, is on a mission to get Americans to read clothing labels as copiously as they read food labels.

This story first appeared in the September 27, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

She wants them to not only look at the name behind the item, but also what materials make up the item.

“When I was in the States, I was taken aback by how label-conscience Americans were about their food,” said Zegna Baruffa at her factory in Borgosesia. “They need to learn to be that way also with their clothes and know that the finest materials, not just a brand name, make the best clothing.”

She’s trying to do this by educating the trade, and eventually the public, about a new yarn the company has developed called Shamir, a superfine cashmere. The company is preparing promotional materials to tout the new yarn and, she hopes, get it listed as a separate fiber in clothing labels. Ultimately, she wants the public to perceive this trademarked yarn as a valuable and desirable element of apparel.

Zegna Baruffa is just one of a younger generation who is injecting energy and focus into the venerable merino yarn maker. Her brother Massimiliano is chief executive and their cousin Alfredo Botto Poala is president.

Revenue in 2001 reached $240 million (converted from euros at current exchange rates), up 14 percent from the previous year, and the company has recently opened offices in Paris, Shanghai and Monaco to help solidify its presence in foreign countries. It already has sales offices in New York.

Founded in 1924, the company is one of the largest exporters of yarn destined for knitwear and annually produces about 24.2 million pounds. Production includes worsted, carded, classic and fantasy yarns in merino wool, cashmere, silk and mixes.

At her family’s sprawling factory here, in the foothills of the Alps and along the Sesia River, the production cycle combines state-of-the-art technology with handcraftsmanship honed over many decades. In the research lab, there’s a machine used to detect the slightest impurities in raw wool — one of only two existing in Europe. In the same room, a technician kneads two pieces of dyed wool together to see whether the color combination would work as a melange yarn.

The cavernous factory is kept humid to maintain the integrity of the wool. Production could take around 25 days for a melange yarn and the majority of Zegna Baruffa’s wool goes through a superwash, which renders the yarn machine washable.

From there, the wool goes through a series of elaborate processes, including dying, drying, hand-twisting and then the actual spinning. Workers conduct quality control tests along the way.

Zegna Baruffa is tentatively entering the Russian market and has its eye on China. Botto Poala calls his company a modern business based on proven family traditions. “We’re open to everything — expansion, maybe in the future a public listing or even acquisitions,” he said.

But one thing the company has no intention of doing is producing its own line of knitwear.

“We’re a leader at producing fine merino yarns and supplying them to top manufacturers and designers,” Botto Poala said. “We’re more than happy to stay in that position.”