Inside Italy's Centuries-Old and Sustainable Cashmere Mills

Elizabeth Cline with James Pella, production manager at Piacenza Cashmere in Biella Italy.

Elizabeth Cline with James Pella, production manager at Piacenza Cashmere in Biella Italy.

“There’s a saying in Biella that a Biellanese will greet you with one hand and touch what you’re wearing with the other,” says James Pella, the production manager of Piacenza Cashmere, one of the two world-famous mills I recently had the opportunity to visit in Biella, Italy. The day was a study in contrasts, between old world traditions and the latest in innovation, technology, and sustainability.

Biella is a quaint Italian town of our imaginations. It’s encircled by snow-capped Italian Alps and cut down the middle by a small river. But it’s known for more than its charming looks. For centuries, it’s been home to the world’s premier makers of woolen fabrics, the ultra-luxurious kind used by international luxury brands including Louis Vuitton, Fendi, and Gucci.

My first stop was Piacenza Cashmere, a fourteen generations-old family-run company that dates to 1733. While best known for cashmere, Piacenza also spins wool, alpaca, camel hair, and the exclusive and astronomically priced vicuna, harvested from a camelid animal that lives in the high altitudes of the Andes. Piacenza prides itself on its highly customized fabric finishes, many created by age-old craft traditions. As Pella explained, “We have very sophisticated sensors here. They’re our hands and our eyes. And we use them a lot.” Creating a fur-like texture on a felted wool is done by combing the fabric with a machine laced with, of all things, dried thistle flowers, as seen below.

Piacenza Cashmere uses dried thistle flowers in its finishing machines to give its wool a soft hand-finished look.

In the 1990s, there was concern that global competition would knock Biella’s factories off their perch. But Pella says, “China are our clients.” As early as 1996, The New York Times marveled that the fabric of Biella had “not only beaten back the onslaught of cheap textiles from the Far East, it has also inundated Japan, Korea, and China with its own top-of-the-line fabrics.” There are fewer factories here today than in decades past. And the ones that remain rely on efficiency and technology. But the centuries of know-how passed from generation to generation in Biella is simply too rich to replicate.

A small selection of the 2,500 possible fabric variations, many with high-tech properties, that Reda offers.

My next stop was Reda, another family-owned mill, this one founded in 1865. Reda is best known for its exquisite suiting fabrics and range of performance and activewear wools that feature everything from moisture-wicking properties to a ripstop backing. The mill is vertical and controls every stage of its production, even owning its own sheep ranch in New Zealand. Photos of the fluffy flocks hang in the corporate offices.

What stands out about the Reda factory is its cutting edge technology as well as its scope. I saw an impressive expanse of high-tech computer-operated looms, dyeing, drying and spinning machines as far as the eye could see. Reda also offers on average 2,500 fabric variations each season, and are leaders in sustainability. They are the only wool mill with the European Union’s Eco-Management and Audit Schemecertification. “We invested in sustainability back in the 1990s, as a matter of survival,” says Reda co-President Ercole Botto Poala. In addition to a roster of luxury brands, well known sustainable fashion brands such as wool sneaker brand Allbirds source from Reda.

What remains constant between Piacenza and Reda is a fastidious commitment to quality at every step of the process. Quality is the backbone of Italy and Biella’s fashion heritage. The last line of defense at both mills—and what allows each to send spooled perfection out the door every day of the year—are their expert hand sewers. With a few quick and measured stitches, these seasoned sewers can make small snags and runs completely disappear. It’s an incredible thing to witness.

Both Piacenza and Reda are also genuine about sustainability and transparency. Both factories are an open book; happy to not only allow me to meet with their top executives, but they allowed me to photograph as I wished in every room of their mill. Suffice it to say, this is not common in other parts of the world. When you’re making the world’s finest cloth, process matters and people matter, and both Piacenza Cashmere and Reda have deep and deserved pride in the luxurious Italian textiles they’re making.