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Fantastic Fabrics

The fashion industry keeps raising the bar on fabric fineness, but at what point does it go from the sublime to the ridiculous?
Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
Greg Raymer, Sept/Oct 2004

"Touch it." Alan Katzman is proffering the sleeve of a suit jacket custom tailored from fabric woven of 93 percent vicuna and 7 percent silk. The suit, made for a very wealthy customer whom the proprietor of Alan Couture in Manhattan requests that we not identify, will sell for $30,000. "It's heaven, isn't it?"

Katzman is right. The cloth, which until recently was illegal to sell, is celestial. Not only does it feel wonderful, it's beautiful to the eye and impossibly light. But at its price one might expect some harp music to herald its indescribably soft touch. The buyer, however, is in a rarefied financial world where there is a certain logic to spending that much for an article of clothing just because it feels so good and almost no one else can have it. "You make him one of these," Katzman says of his customer (you'd recognize the name), "and this is worse than cigarettes. He'll have to have more."

Vicuna, made from the coat of tiny wild camelids of the same name that roam the central Andes at elevations of 16,000 feet and were near extinction only 30 years ago, represents the top echelon of a movement by fabric makers to create ever more elegant, expensive, exclusive and, sometimes, impractical cloth for suits. Vicuna, for instance, is so delicate that silk—usually thought of as pretty fine fiber itself—was woven into the cloth mentioned above to give it more guts. "Pure vicuna pants," Katzman says, "would be a disaster."

The cloth would wear out too fast and never hold a pressing. As it is, he would suggest dry-cleaning this suit as little as possible.

But, for the man who buys vicuna or Super 200 wool or baby cashmere or pashmina or any of the succession of hyper-quality cloths that seem to constantly raise the bar for men's suits, durability or the number of dry cleanings a garment can take is not a large concern. "He's got 50 suits in his closet. How many times can he wear this one?" says Katzman.

Certainly, the high end of cloth is not for everyone—mainly because everyone can't afford it—but those who can might question an atmosphere of escalation that seems to hold no end, where pattern choices are limited and some products fall into realms that Katzman flatly calls phantasmagoric or even tasteless: e.g., Super 150s blended with gold fibers or diamond chips and the phantom "white vicuna," an elusive breed of ruminant that even Captain Ahab didn't pursue.

The spiraling quality and cost of cloth began with the introduction of Super 80 worsted woolens. The Super numerical designation was created by the British Wool Textile Export Corp. and represents a complicated function of the length of fiber that can be spun from a pound of wool. The finer the wool, the greater its length per pound. Recently, the industry has been recognizing a second designation of fineness—the micron, or mil mil, width—which is inversely proportional to the Super designation and more to the point. A micron is a distance of a millionth, or one thousandth of a thousandth, of a meter. A human hair is about 50 microns wide, the average sheep wool about 24. Worsted wools are considered Supers when they measure less than 20 microns across. A fiber with a width of 19.5 microns is equivalent to a Super 80 fiber. A Super 100 has a micron count of 18.5. A Super 150 is down at 15.5 microns, which less than a decade ago was the fineness limit. Now there are Super 200 fabrics at 13 microns.

That is not the last frontier. Sheep raisers in Australia have been treating fineness barriers like Chuck Yeager once did airspeed records. In June, a group of farmers sold a bale of wool that crossed the 12-micron barrier at 11.9. That puts it in vicuna's league and makes it slightly finer than the best cashmere. The price to renowned fabric maker Loro Piana (also the purveyor of Katzman's vicuna) was $140,000 a pound. By the time the wool is made into a garment, that suit will cost $30,000 or more.

Ian Gill is in the Old King Cole bar of the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan, some 14,000 miles from his family's sheep farm northeast of Melbourne, Australia, and trying to explain how one coaxes wool of that fineness out of a merino sheep. "There have been 18 bales of wool under 13 microns and we produced three of them," he mentions matter-of-factly. "There's another six [such producers] elbowing around [that caliber of wool delicacy]."

A reconciliation of science and art is the common thread he shares with his competitors, he says. To reach this quality, sheep need not only exacting breeding (by artificial insemination) and careful attention to diet, but a certain amount of pampering. Most spend their lives in temperature-controlled, chemical-free ventilated sheds, wearing nylon coats that protect their wool. On top of that, each farmer provides special diets and amenities. One even pipes music into his sheds for the sheep's listening pleasure.

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