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The Controversy Over Super Wool

From the May/June 2007 Issue

Better sheep-breeding techniques and advances in loom technology have made the cloth that goes into men’s suits finer and softer. But, Nicholas Antongiavanni asks, are the suits really better?

Super Sheep 2In the fitting room of a Manhattan depart­ment store, a partner in an expensive New York law firm looks uneasily in the mirror. His new made-to-measure suit does not seem to fit quite cor­rectly. He has brought along a younger associate to render an opinion. The boss may be richer and a more experienced litigator, but his confidence fails him when he confronts the mysteries of tailoring. The associate, by contrast, is an established client of Henry Poole, Savile Row, London, the world’s second-oldest tailoring establishment. He may be less confident in court, but he got over his fear of haberdashery long ago.

“What do you think?” the partner asks.

“Well, the collar is standing off your neck by a good half inch, the shoulders look about a half inch too wide on each side, and the back is a mess.”

This is too much for the salesman, who interjects, “But…this suit is completely handmade!”

“I can see that, and the stitching is very good—beautiful,” says the associate. “But the jacket doesn’t fit. I’m not sure alterations will be enough to make it fit.”

This back and forth goes on for a while, neither side giving any ground, until at last, exasperated, the salesman grabs his customer’s arm, lifts it into the air, and strokes the jacket’s sleeve. “Feel that,” he exclaims triumphantly. “That’s Super one-fifties!”

Yes! The trump card! Super 150s! What more do you need to know?

A lot. Successful mar­keting has convinced too many men that the Super number is a measure not only of great wool but also of great tailoring. Both of these conclusions are untrue. In addition, the Supers fixation may have served to under­mine the very industry it was hyped to support. There are signs—small signs—that the clothing industry may be waking up to the danger posed by the Super monster it has created. But other signs suggest it may be too late.

Meanwhile, retailers continue to report that while in the age of “business casual” they sell fewer suits than they used to, what suits they do sell are more expensive, high-end brands priced well into four fig­ures. For many men, the suit has gone from being a daily uniform to a luxury item. Naturally then, buy­ers have high expectations about the raw materials that go into it. Thus, the Supers phenomenon.

For spinners and weavers, 100s-count wool was the four-minute mile: an arbitrary round number that some doubted could ever be cracked but over which everyone obsessed, nonetheless.

Nearly every suit sold today—certainly those at the middle through the top of the market—is made from wool shorn from sheep descended from just two rams and four ewes. In 1789, King Charles IV of Spain gave those six ani­mals to one Colonel Gordon of the Dutch East India Company, who brought them to South Africa, where they thrived. Six years later, an enterprising British immigrant to Australia named John Macarthur bought 26 sheep from the colonel’s widow and transported them to Botany Bay. These 26 became the founding flock of the great Australian wool industry, whose sheep now number more than 120 million, or six times the human population. The Australian wool industry today generates nearly $2.5 billion (U.S.) a year in exports, and is so crucial to the Australian economy that John Macarthur’s portrait has appeared on an Australian two-dollar bill—next to a sheep, of course.

Australia, by and large, does not weave wool; Australia grows it. To make a sheep’s fleece into a suit, fibers first must be spun into yarn, and then the yarns woven into cloth. The world’s most renowned locus of this industry is Yorkshire, England, where the city of Huddersfield dominated the world wool trade for 150 years. While still an important cen­ter, its market share has declined precipitously and is still dropping. Nonetheless, Huddersfield techniques and terminology still rule the industry worldwide. And the very concept of “Supers” origi­nated right there.

In the Yorkshire wool markets, before the advent of modern grading technology, quality was judged by how much yarn could be spun out of one pound of raw wool. The finer the fibers, the more “hanks”—a spool totaling 560 yards of yarn—can be spun out of a single pound. Wool was thus designated as “60s count” if a pound could yield 60 hanks, 70s if 70, and so on. This measurement, and not “thread count,” or threads per inch, as many people assume, is the basis for all those confusing Super numbers. Higher-count wool commands higher prices because it can produce more yarn, and what it does yield is softer and silkier to the touch.

The finest wool comes from merino sheep (the breed given to Colonel Gordon)—animals that love rocky soil in dry, hot climates. But the rough outer coat of even a merino sheep is useless for “suitings” (what people in the trade call cloth meant for a suit). The good stuff is the undercoating that grows close to the skin, and the best stuff comprises the hairs that grow under the animal’s chin and down its throat and chest.

Tailor 1In Spain, the undercoatings of merinos natu­rally produce wool of about 60s to 65s quality—the best in the world for centuries. Over the years, some sheep in Australia developed undercoatings that grew as fine as 70s and 80s. This wool was the top of the line and was produced in limited quan­tities, virtually all of it destined for Savile Row. But the Australian growers were not content. Through careful selective breeding, they were able to raise generation after generation of sheep with ever-finer fleeces. Soon, some of the animals began growing undercoats whose fineness exceeded the 70s and 80s that had long dominated the upper end of the wool market.

To this point, “count” numbers were used only in the wool trade; rare was the consumer who had even heard of them. That changed in the early 1960s. For spinners and weavers, 100s-count wool was the four-minute mile: an arbitrary round num­ber which some doubted could ever be cracked but over which everyone obsessed, nonetheless. And of course, it was cracked, causing a sensation.

Joseph Lumb & Sons—then perhaps the most famous spinners in Yorkshire (and now part of the Bulmer & Lumb Group)—decided that the advent of 100s-count wool was an event worthy of note. Lumb bought an entire year’s lot of the wool and, in part­nership with the cloth merchant H. Lesser, brought to market suitings dubbed “Lumb’s Huddersfield Super 100s.”

Super! Yes! Ordinary, old 70s, 80s, even 90s were never deemed worthy of that epithet. But 100s! Just stating the number without any adjective would be like saying, “Roger Bannister ran around this track really fast.”

At first, on Savile Row—Huddersfield’s most reli­able and important market—Super numbers didn’t cause much of a stir. But a few of the big-name tailors had outposts in Japan. Tokyo’s tailoring industry used British cloth almost exclusively, and customers there found the Supers enchanting; or, at least, they loved what the term represented. “The best,” says John Bell, in a mat­ter-of-fact way. Bell is manager of the English cloth merchant H. Lesser, and has been in the busi­ness more than 40 years. He recalls the enthusi­asm of Japanese, and later Middle Eastern, customers for the early Supers: “In Japan, they would even give cloth as a gift—just buy a bolt and present it to a colleague or friend.”

This mentality helped to push the industry into growing and weaving ever-finer Supers. Technology helped, too. The thinner a yarn is, the more apt it is to break in the weaving process. When that hap­pens, the loom has to be stopped and the breakage repaired—by hand, on the older machines. The alter­native is to run the looms more slowly, only to end up with less yarn per hour of operation. Newer looms, however, can run much faster, with less breakage, and can even repair breaks automatically. David Graham of Britain’s Smith Woolens remembers touring mills and seeing teams of people looking after the looms, on the watch for breakage. “Now you see very few people,” he says.

Another innovation was better sorting. In the good old days, wool was sorted by hand, in Yorkshire. This imprecise method meant that most finished cloth was a mix of fibers of similar, but varying, count. A nice piece of goods bound for Savile Row might have a little 60s, some 70s, a lot of 80s, and a smattering of 90s. When the Supers craze took off, the growers in Australia realized the importance of isolating finer fibers. Soon, it became possible to make, market, and sell cloth that was exclusively Super 100s—and up.

Nearly every suit sold today is made from wool shorn from sheep descended from just two rams and four ewes that Charles IV of Spain gave to Colonel Gordon in 1789.

And up, up, and away. Careful breeding and varying the animals’ liv­ing conditions did much of the rest. Mother Nature’s original design for sheep may have yielded wool no better than 80s. But the hand of man has found ways to do better. When chance produces animals here and there with finer fleeces, those sheep are separated from the gen­eral population in the hope that their offspring will produce wool of sim­ilarly high quality. Growers have also found that diet and environment matter. An overly contented sheep grows coarse hairs. Hold back just a little on the feed, make his environment just a little less pastoral, and the stress to his system will produce finer fleece. These techniques have produced undercoats that go all the way to 250s. That is much finer than, say, cashmere, the highly prized wool of Central Asian goats. Only vicuna, the fleece from an Andean goat and long the most expensive cloth in the world, can compare. Brian Hague, a weaver at Yorkshire’s Taylor & Lodge, predicts that 250s is about as fine as fibers can get: “You’re talking about one bale in an entire year’s clip that might reach that level.” Hague says that even if sheep could be bred to produce finer fleeces—which he doubts—“our machines as they are now couldn’t weave it.” But then again, hardly anyone expected that a microchip could be manu­factured with a few thousand transistors on it; now, microchips carry a billion or more.

The English may have invented the Supers game, but the Italians picked up the ball, ran with it, and have thus far outscored the com­petition—at least in terms of sales.

The Italian textile industry goes back centuries, but its role in this story begins after World War II. Fashion and clothing were among the few bright points in the otherwise ruined Italian economy, and the government sought to strengthen this existing asset. Huge subsidies were offered to weavers in the northern city of Biella, the center of Italy’s weaving trade, but, in the end, success came from savvy busi­ness decisions and clever marketing.

The Italian weavers were much quicker than the competition to exploit the dramatic rise in the ready-to-wear suit market after the war. There was some measure of luck involved, too, because large parts of Italy shared a climate with large parts of the United States. Hot weather was not usually an issue in Britain, but it was in Italy and the U.S., where lighter-weight cloth proved very popular. And it is much easier to make lightweight cloth out of high-count wool, with its thinner yarns.

But its luxurious hand is what really made the Supers a marketing juggernaut. “Hand” is how peo­ple in the cloth and tailoring trades refer to the way a cloth feels to the touch, how it responds to handling, and how it takes the needle. You can easily notice the difference in hand between Super 120s and old-world 80s. When your fingertips get used to stroking 150s and above, wool that used to be con­sidered the finest that Savile Row had to offer can feel like sandpaper.

Tailor 2The Italians milked this perception. Plus, they leveraged their lower labor costs and relative abun­dance of tailors and seamstresses into a high-end ready-to-wear industry that Britain could not match. Firms like Kiton and Brioni began offer­ing genuinely hand-sewn suits—since the advent of mechanization, rarely seen outside custom ate­liers—on department store racks. The kind of customer attracted to these luxurious and expen­sive (Kiton suits retail north of $5,000) garments had no interest in skimping on the wool. “Our price is more based on workmanship than fabrics,” says Dan Wolman of Kiton USA, “so less expensive cloth doesn’t save much off the final price. Besides, at our price point, exclusive fabrics make more sense because that’s what the customer expects.”

And for a while, fabrics got more exclusive every year. Growers became savvier about breeding, even taking out some of the guesswork by using DNA analysis to match the best ewes with the best studs.

By the early 1990s, the entry level for a decent high-end suit was widely considered to be Super 120s, while 150s were cutting edge. These days, the top brands don’t work with anything below 150s and are more likely to stock 180s.

The rise of the Supers was not without con­troversy. “Count” was never meant to be a precise measure of the fineness of individ­ual fibers; it was merely a quick-and-dirty way for wool buyers to separate the good from the very good. Once the number became a selling point for consumers, problems of definition arose. What did “Super 120s” really signify, and did every suit claiming the honor actually deserve it? The more fundamental problem was that no one could say what cloth deserved any particular Super desig­nation at all. After much bickering between the British and Italians, the industry finally found a way to police itself. The International Wool Secretariat (an industry trade group now called the Woolmark Company) set down precise measurements to cor­respond to Super numbers.

But the larger controversy has never gone away. Are the Supers really that great? Is the width of fibers the most important thing one needs to know about wool? The weavers of Yorkshire and the cloth merchants of London don’t think so. Talking to them, one hears over and over the contemptuous phrase “numbers game” used to belittle the Supers phenomenon. “There’s more to wool than fiber diameter,” says Graham of Smith Woolens. “There’s the length of fibers [longer is better], crimp [i.e., waviness; more of it gives strength and resilience], consistency from one end of a strand to the other, the amount and quality of lanolin and natural oils—and so much more. And that’s before you even get to how the cloth is woven and finished, all of which has a huge impact on the quality of the final product.”

Firms like Kiton and Brioni began offering genuinely hand-sewn suits—since the advent of mechanization, rarely seen outside custom ateliers—on department store racks.

Even some Italians in the business agree. Mariano Rubinacci is heir to one of the two most famous names in Italian tailoring (the other is Caraceni) and runs a legendary bespoke sartoria, or empo­rium for custom-made clothing, in Naples, Italy’s most renowned tailoring town. When asked about the Supers, Rubinacci’s response is, “It’s bull—” (then he completes the thought). “All marketing,” he says, “though they can be nice against the skin.” Like Kiton, Rubinacci is dealing with a rarefied level of customer, one who always wants “the best” and often enters the store bent on buying the highest Super number at hand. Still, for those who know better, or who can be educated, Rubinacci will bring out special heavyweight hopsacks woven the old-fashioned way in England, exclu­sively for his firm. The most discerning and favored customers are walked across the Via Filangeri to a ware­house where vintage cloth—some pieces from as far back as the 1930s—is stored. These are about as far from the Supers as you can get. Some cus­tomers treat the room like a shrine. Others don’t get the appeal. “Not everyone understands,” Rubinacci shrugs.

Indeed not. But there are signs that many do. Traditional cloth makers may not be thriving—the mood in Yorkshire remains largely gloomy—but they do feel appreciated by a certain type of cus­tomer, and certainly by tailors, most of whom can’t stand the Supers and would prefer to sew almost anything else.

Other men have learned from hard experience that the Supers are irritatingly prone to become shiny or to wear through. Still others wonder why their $4,000 suits are rippling and wrinkling, and they look with envy on harder-wearing stuff that lies smoothly on the body.

H. Lesser still sells mostly traditional cloth—“the mainstay of our business,” says Bell—even though the firm also offers a small range of Supers, as a concession to market realities, he hints. Smith Woolens recently introduced a new line called “Whole Fleece”—that is, the entire clip from a sheep is used together, rather than sorted by grade and woven separately.

And even people not in the business are getting into the game. Michael Alden, a Europe-based venture capitalist, has been a Savile Row cus­tomer for years and remembers with a mixture of fondness and regret the great range of sturdy cloth that was available as recently as the 1980s. Rather than settle for what is out there now, he has gone directly to mills to commission his own fabrics, defraying the cost by attracting buy­ers through his website, thelondonlounge.net. “Fabric manufacturers cannot find customers for traditional cloth through their established retail and wholesale channels, so they have slowed production,” he says. “Some custom clothing clients, however, still prefer the old-fashioned stuff for its styling and draping qualities. I’m trying to bridge that gap.” Lacking any overhead or marketing costs, Alden can offer this cloth at prices slightly below $100 per yard.

Super SheepWill these small efforts at reviving older-style fabrics be successful? Certainly, in the Italian textile industry, businesses like Zegna and Loro Piana dominate by making lightweight Supers on impressive machinery. But Biella is nervously look­ing abroad, to India and China mostly, where the Asians may do to Italy what Italy did to the British. Chinese and Indian weavers, with lower labor costs, have invested in the same high-tech machinery and can afford to buy the same quality raw wool from Australia. The Asians can make a profit selling low-end Supers at $25 to $50 per yard wholesale. Italy already cannot compete on price in a marketplace in which the consumer cares about one measure above all: the Super number. There will come a point when, with Asian techniques improving, Italians won’t be able to compete on quality, either.

Chuck Franke runs Carlo Franco, a Dallas-based high-end clothing firm, and imports most of his cloth from Italy. “Biella mills are very concerned,” he says. “They can either drop quality to match price, or maintain quality and hope that the magic of the ‘Made in Italy’ tag will carry them through.”

In the end, small artisans may survive and pos­sibly thrive, even as their industry declines. Northampton, still the center of British shoe­making, once was home to dozens of firms that dominated the trade worldwide. Today, only a few remain, but those that do—including Edward Green and Crockett & Jones—make some of the best shoes in the world. There’s hope. Meanwhile, those who love old-fashioned high-quality wool would be well advised to take nothing for granted, and stock up while they still can.

Nicholas Antongiavanni is a New York writer. His book, “The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men’s Style,” was published last year by Collins.

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