The mark of quality

From Australian farms, via the foothills of the Alps, to the valleys of Yorkshire: the story of wool is that of the unerring pursuit of perfection above all else. 

First featured in Issue 05
Buy this issue

Share on Facebook | Pinterest | Twitter


Spare a thought for Ned Ludd. In 1779, the Leicestershire weaver smashed two stocking (or knitting) frames in a fit of pique. Contemporary reports give two reasons for his sudden, violent action: he was either reacting to taunts from a group of youths, or to being whipped for idleness. Either way, it seems a little unfair that his name has forever since been linked with trade unionism, civil disobedience and an irrational fear of modern technology. The poor lad was just upset.

Nevertheless, when a spate of machine-breaking disturbances rocked the wool and cotton industries around the same time, workers would jokingly say that ‘Ned Ludd did it’. And so, inadvertently, a borderline delinquent with anger management issues from the East Midlands of England started the Luddite movement.  The first recorded ‘Luddite riots’ took place in nearby Nottinghamshire in 1811, and quickly spread to other areas of the country, including Derbyshire, Lancashire and, notably, West Riding in Yorkshire.

It was here that Zaccheus Hinchcliffe, a local farmer, had begun to realise that the real money to be had wasn’t simply in shearing and selling wool, but in what happens after – the washing, the spinning, the dyeing and the weaving. (Let’s face it, with a name like Zaccheus, he was bound to have loftier ideas than shepherding).

In those early years, the Hinchcliffe family business was forced to move three times – twice because of unrest from Luddites. ‘Many people thought a mechanized form of spinning was going to take their jobs away,’ explains John Hinchcliffe, a descendent of Zaccheus who still runs the business together with his cousin, George Wilby and their sons. ‘What they didn’t understand was that the Empire was expanding and there were huge opportunities to sell their goods.’

Britannia ruled the waves and its subjects wanted wool: and mechanisation was the only way to keep up with demand. Partly to avoid the attentions of the Luddites, Z. Hinchcliffe eventually settled in the more tranquil surrounds of Denby Dale (near Huddersfield) in 1860, concentrating its efforts on worsted and woolen spinning – as well as dyeing and weaving. The new location, sitting between the River Dearne and the relatively recent steam railway, was ideal for the modern, globalised industry that they were laying the foundations for. The raw material, the vital ingredients for production and the means of distribution all flowed through the same valley one way or another.

Since that time, the wool industry has become a model for how a 21st century, mechanised, international production line can work; where at every step of the way, the very finest materials and techniques are utilised in the endless pursuit of perfection. It’s simple, really: the finest wool in the world comes from the Antipodeans. The purest water filters its way through the Alps. The best conditions can be found both there, in the Italian foothills, and in Yorkshire, where the mists and mellow fruitfulness combine to provide a prime atmosphere for spinning. And the wool industry has worked out the best way to combine them all together. Today, in a neat reversal of fortunes, it’s the Australian organisation Woolmark that provides the missing piece of the jigsaw, providing independent quality assurance at every step of the wool manufacture process. In a sense, we have Ned Ludd to thank for all this.

Pier Luigi Loro Piana is anything but a Luddite. As Deputy Chairman of Loro Piana, who specialise in high-end wool and cashmere products, he takes a keen interest in technology. For Pier Luigi, ‘it’s about quality with no compromise’. And quality, in this case, is all about size. Fibre diameter and length determine quality when it comes to wool. The best wool on the planet is, literally, the finest. ‘That’s what we are looking for,’ says Loro Piana, ‘and how we would define our product as a luxury product. We try to make a product with no compromise in terms of quality. First comes quality, and then everything else: the style, the look, then the cost, the price.’

The smaller the fibre’s diameter, the softer it is to the touch, while maintaining tensile strength (a vital factor if the wool is to be spun). The diameter of wool is measured in microns, with one micron equal to one millionth of a metre. Coarse wool, such as that used for outerwear or rugs, is typically over 36 microns; while wool from the Merino sheep – the world’s finest – is a maximum of 23 microns. But that’s not enough for Loro Piana. In the year 1997, Pier Luigi Loro Piana established a search for the finest single wool bale in the world, later establishing the Loro Piana Record Bale competition. The aim was to assign the finest, longest and most tenacious Merino wool; and to develop some healthy competition between Australian and New Zealand wool farmers, who produce the best Merino. If (and only if) the fibre reaches – in the wording of the rules, ‘a record finesse, historically never registered before’, it is declared as the World Wool Record Bale. Currently that honour belongs to the New Zealand farm Lindis Ridges, with a wool bale measuring 10.6 microns.

This is more than simply a clever marketing tool (although the fact that Loro Piana always buy the record bale to produce the ultimate limited edition suit – offering the chance to own one of only 40 in the world bearing the ‘record bale’ label – doesn’t hurt sales). In fact, as Pier Luigi attests, ‘Thanks to the ongoing collaboration and the breeders’ constant commitment, the quality standards have grown significantly; in only 17 years, the fibre’s finesse improved by 30 per cent.’

It is perhaps a neat twist that the finest wool hails from Australia and New Zealand. The social conditions that resulted in the Luddite riots also coincided with the transportation of working class criminals to the Antipodeans – many of them for the crime of machine breaking. For example, on 9 April 1812, the Derby Mercury announced that seven men from Nottinghamshire – having destroyed knitting machinery while bearing the slogan ‘No General but Ludd means the poor any good’ – were to ‘begin their forced journey of several thousand miles and several months to Van Diemen’s Land in June, never to return.’

Today, the record bales that are sheared on the plains of Australia and New Zealand are delivered – sheep droppings still attached – to the north of Italy and of England, to undergo a meticulous process of washing and spinning that has been developed over centuries of know-how and perfected through the use of cutting edge machinery. ‘From farm, from raw material – the very first stage – to finished product in the windows of Via Monte Napoleone and the best stores in the world – this is quite a challenging process,’ says Pier Luigi Loro Piana, with some understatement.

But for all his commitment to technology (he holds a science doctorate), Mr Loro Piana still talks in a way that would make Ned Ludd’s followers proud. ‘You learn a lot of things,’ he says. ‘And sometimes the oldest methods are the best to invest in for producing new products.’

Likewise, it’s important to learn that sometimes you needn’t rage against the machine: true craftsmen never blame their tools, after all…

Words Mark Hooper
Photographs Leandro Farina