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The Italian textile sector has built a reputation that dates to pre-Roman and medieval times for its superfine wools, sleek silks and high-tech blends that are coveted by apparel designers around the world.
Still, the industry has struggled in recent years, along with other manufacturing sectors, in the midst of the global economic doldrums.
Italian textiles saw a 10 percent drop in production and a 13 percent dip in employment between 2007 and 2011, according to the Italian fashion and textile consortium SMI Sistema Moda Italia. In the first nine months of 2012, the industry posted exports of 7.9 billion euros, or $10.4 billion at average exchange, a 5.6 percent drop compared with the same period the previous year.
While Europe lagged behind, exports to the U.S., Japan and China help balance business and many of the country’s spinning mills and textile manufacturers are not only holding out, but are also investing in new technologies and projects for growth.
Here’s a snapshot of the storied textile districts of Biella, Como and Prato.
BIELLA: WOOL CAPITAL
The abundant waters of its Cervo and Sesia rivers, the green grass of its grazing lands and the entrepreneurial spirit of the locals have combined to help the Biella area, in Italy’s Piedmont region, become a hub of production of high-end wool yarns and fabrics.
The oldest signs of textile activity in the area date back to the Pre-Roman Age. There are traces of the Piacenza family and a wool business in 1622, but the Lanificio Fratelli Piacenza was established in 1733 at Pollone, a few miles from Biella.
In the first half of the 19th century, a real textile industry began to develop, as machinery was invented and factories sprung up along the riverbanks, to use water in the production process as well as for transportation.
According to data provided by the city’s Chamber of Commerce, in 2012 the Biella district counted 914 textile companies, a significant drop from 2003, when 1,478 companies were doing business in the area.
Despite the dramatic reshaping of the district, its gross domestic product kept growing, reaching 5.08 billion euros, or $6.6 billion at average exchange, in 2011, boosted by exports, which totaled 1.53 billion euros, or $1.9 billion.
“The Biella district’s strong point is that is concentrated on the production of luxury products for the highest segment of the market, which is definitely suffering less than other segments, and is traditionally focused on exports,” said Sergio Tamborini, chief executive officer of the Marzotto Group, which comprises a number of high-end wool textile mills, including Tessuti Marzotto and Fratelli Tallia di Delfino.
Because of its exclusive range of luxury cashmere, vicuna and superfine wool yarns, Cariaggi Fine Yarns Collection is generally associated with the Biella district, although it is located in Central Italy’s Montefeltro valley, about 200 miles to the southeast. Montefeltro is no longer a textile district, according to Cariaggi company director Cristiana Cariaggi. In 2012, Cariaggi, which was founded in 1958, posted revenues of 100.5 million euros, or $132.6 million, up 13.2 percent compared with the previous year.
Lanificio Ermenegildo Zegna, the wool mill founded by Ermenegildo Zegna in 1910 in Trivero, is one of Biella’s leading companies at the luxury end. Others in the area include giant Loro Piana; Lanificio Carlo Barbera; Lanifico F.lli Cerruti and Lanificio di Tollegno.
Ermenegildo Zegna Group closed 2012 reporting a 12 percent increase in revenues to 1.25 billion euros, or $1.6 billion.
“What counts now is the brand and creating innovative projects that have appeal in international markets,” said Gildo Zegna, chief executive officer of his family’s company.
COMO: THE ORIGINAL SILK CITY
Over the centuries, Lake Como’s glistening landscape may have inspired manufacturers creating the shiny, precious silk fabrics made famous by designers around the world.
Previously focused on weaving wool cloth, the Como area, in Lombardy, started specializing in silk in the 15th century. The proliferation of small silk mills in the region was a result of aristocrat Giangaleazzo Sforza’s decision to promote the plantations of mulberry trees to feed silkworms in 1470.
In 1510, Pietro Boldoni established the first silk factory in Bellano, but it was in the second half of the 19th century that a number of Como-based entrepreneurs, such as Amedeo Taroni, Riccardo Mantero and, later, Antonio Ratti, started opening a number of the silk mills that are still a point of reference for the industry.
According to the province’s association of industrial companies, the Como silk district currently counts 800 business entities linked to silk production.
According to SMI, in the first nine months of 2012, exports of silk cloths and yarns, valued at 620 million euros, or $806 million, increased 8.4 and 10.5 percent, respectively, compared with 2011 — a sign of the fiber’s momentum.
PRATO: TRADITION MEETS HIGH-TECH
The evolution of the Prato textile district is a clear example of the ability of Italian companies to re-invent themselves.
Established in the 11th century in this hamlet on the outskirts of Florence, the carded wool industry flourished over the centuries and boomed after World War II. In 1981, the number of the district’s employees totaled 60,000 — up from 22,000 in 1950.
As more modern and efficient home heating systems were increasingly in wide use in the Eighties, the demand for more lightweight fabrics emerged, while that for thicker, warmer carded wools dropped, affecting production in the district. The shift in demand has taken a toll on producers, and those that remain are the ones that have been able to develop innovative, high-end fabrics, including new products such as worsted wools, cottons, linens, silks and more technical blends, and have had the means to invest in research, and efficient, modern technologies.
“Due to high taxation, complicated bureaucracy and unsustainable energy prices, the district, which has seen the closure of 35 percent of its companies since 2000, is still suffering,” said Andrea Cavicchi, chairman of Furpile Idea SpA and president of Prato’s industry association. “The companies that are performing better are those producing more sophisticated and exclusive products.”
According to data provided by Unione Industriale Pratese, the province’s association of industrial companies, the Prato district currently counts 3,027 textile concerns for a total of 17,500 employees. In 2011, Prato’s textile industry logged 3.15 billion euros, or $4 billion, in revenues. Of this, 1.6 billion euros, or $2 billion, were exports.
See a List of Italian Manufacturing Districts Here >>