As a knitter and a Milan dweller, I know that on certain Fridays of certain weeks, I can venture into one of the most innovative and fashionable districts of the city, Isola, skip the line to one of the most popular bars of the area, Frida, with just a nod to the waitress, walk across the crowed tables and go down a small flight of stairs, to enter the realm of Ivana Battiston.
Ivana is famous not only because she was doing the temporary shop thing before every one else, but also because she’s “the one with the good wools”. Her schedule is shared in closed Facebook groups and via text among knitting friends, and world of mouth never fails to inform me of the next appointment. Ivana is one of the last of her kind: she is from Biella, the heart of Italian wool production for many centuries, and she roams the warehouses of spinning mills, collecting the remaining yarn cones from production, that she then sells in cakes of the requested weight, that she winds for you on the spot.
From unlabelled printed sock yarn that you cannot fail to recognise, to tweedy wools, to the most luxurious cashmere-silk-alpaca-tasmanian wool mixes, she’s got them all. And if she does not, all it takes is a phone call, a text or a note, and she will bring some next time. She’s also well known to be able to tell how much you need for a sweater with just a look at you.
I come from a Tuscan lineage of necessity knitters, – as most of Italian women were until very recent times – but with a taste for good raw material: it’s got to be wool, cotton, linen, silk, real leather, maybe viscose (only a good quality one). The shape and the fashion statement is optional if you get a nice fabric and a good fit for your body type.
My grandmother is still alive and her capacity for caring for garments and house linen is legendary. My mom is an exceptional knitter and gifted with a natural elegance. Also the man of my life share the same taste: is it cotton? Is it linen, maybe silk? Is it wool? Then the shirt/jumper/tie is fine to wear. Fast fashion… Ok. If it meets the requirements in fabric composition – that makes fast fashion ventures quite rare to be honest. It is mostly retailers, and also the weekly market sometimes, with a middle price placement. Made in Italy is ideal, but nowadays it is so rare, if you need things to be also affordable…
The ground rule is: few garments, well cared for, respected and dignified for the materials they are made of, often passed along by the generations – my husband wears some handmade wool pullovers knitted in the ’70s that my grandfather passed down to him. I feel that this approach is similar to the one we have with food: if the raw material is good, you don’t need to load your dish with condiments and elaborate preparation. And junk food is fine every now and then. I know, I live in an happy and privileged bubble.
My bubble pops when I realise I can find high quality, delicious fresh food scattered among little shops – along with many supermarkets, in my working-class, suburban neighbourhood, the only place where we could afford a 1923 townhouse with a garden in Milan, the most expensive city in Italy, but I have to shop for my knitting wool online, cross town to the few good yarn shops, or check my schedule to plan a trip to Ivana’s temporary shop? Why is there only one very scarcely assorted yarn shop surviving in my home town, while my grandmother, until the ’80s, was able to shop for Shetland wool mini-skeins for her colorwork without much trouble? Why I do cringe (yes I do!) at the sight of badly produced “woolly” hats and scarves as I ride the subway on my way to the office in winter while living in one of the world fashion capital cities? Why does my neighbourhood haberdashery carry mostly acrylic mixes and novelty yarns, that are sold for their “fast and easy” knitting-crochet result? I’m not a fashion journalist. I’m not a fashion expert. But I’m a knitter and wool enthusiast, and I feel that in Italy wool is not popular as it used to be, and wrongly so.
We produce some of the most amazing yarn, spun from the best fibres of the world, but it is reserved for high fashion and haute couture production, mostly exported. The same is for the fine knitting yarns, labelled by some of the most popular international yarn brands and sold worldwide. We have centuries of wool traditions that somehow are fading. But there is hope, and change is on its way.
From the wool-infused sport wear that is now possibile to find even in big department stores, to the local wool and sheep rescue projects that are starting to flourish, to commercially sold yarns, to the ancient craft of knitting and her sister crochet, that are growing in popularity day by day and that bring a different approach to the materials used – if I have to work so much for this sweater, at least it must be the real deal!
I’d love to share with you all the many amazing Italian, local wool projects, growing every day. To do so, I started Wool It, a new knitting magazine, in Italian and English, with Giulia Boari (@Wool.done). The goal of the project is to share the good that is happening in the Italian wool and knitting world with everyone abroad, and to disseminate in Italy how amazing wool is: its properties, its feeling, its culture and the way it connects people when wool traditions are kept alive.
Each issue of Wool It begins in a place, rural or urban. We try to give a view point of the “woolly situation”: with knitting patterns, a curated selection of yarns, features and articles about the valley, town or area, and most importantly, the people who live there.
Wool It is a project of hope and resistance, out November 2022.
Italian woolly projects worth mentioning – an essential and non exhaustive list, based on my taste and personal experience – please note that some of the websites are only in Italian:
Vasto – Gentile di Puglia – by Laines du Nord, an industrial manifacturer of fine yarns in the Biella region, is making the first commercial yarn from an all-Italian fleece. Amazing yarn for cables – lovely colors, soft, elastic, light, and as a plus, very affordable!