Factory visit: Albini shirtings

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Monday, August 28th 2017
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Although we’ve covered several mills over the years on Permanent Style (such as Pennine, Loro Piana, Robert Noble and VBC), I’ve never visited a shirting mill.

The fact that our first one was Albini was pure coincidence, but it worked out well.

Albini is by far the biggest high-end shirting mill in Europe, and the most vertically integrated, which meant we could see every stage of the process from spinning to finishing.

As I outlined in the post ‘Shirting mills and brands explained’, most shirting brands we know do their own design and weaving - but work with spinners, dyers and finishers for the other stages of the process.

This is rather different to the suitings mills in Italy, where the big names are all vertically integrated - ‘from sheep to shop’. But more similar to the set up in England.

Albini bought a spinner in 2016, setting up an R&D division there to create and design new yarns, as well as check the quality of yarn coming in from other suppliers.

The spun cotton from both arrives in the main mill on cones, and is then dyed in vats of various sizes.

Another trend at Albini in recent years has been an attempt to cater to smaller customers, and a reflection of this is the smaller vats that were installed recently, enabling Albini to offer much smaller minimums on single colours.

It is these vats that are pictured below.

Once the yarn has been dyed and then dried, samples are taken to the in-house laboratory for inspection.

The key here is ensuring that the dyed yarn doesn’t vary too much from one batch to the next. If it does, it can’t be used to weave cloth sold as the same design and colour.

Below you can see five samples from different batches, kept as a record in the lab.

The cones of dyed yarn are kept in a large storage room, where an operator uses a robot to run up and along the shelves and fetch different colours or samples.

This isn’t quite on the scale of Loro Piana, which I can still vividly remember seeing for the first time - its scale makes it feel like something out of Star Wars.

But the Albini storage is still large, and certainly the biggest of any shirting mill.

As with weaving for suits, the next stage is to create the warp - a roll of the yarn on a beam which will go onto the loom and run down the length of the finished cloth, with the weft running across it.

This is all done in the large central hall, which contains just over 100 looms. Albini owns another 300 in other locations.

The weaving varies in speed depending on how delicate the yarn is, or how complicated the desired pattern.

The four or five looms working on denim cloth are deliberately kept a couple of metres away from all the others, to prevent contamination from the indigo dye.

The resulting cloth is inspected, repaired if necessary, and then sent off for finishing at a facility in Brebbia.

As with suitings, again, the difference between raw cloth and finished product is astounding. It feels almost like a rough canvas until it has been washed and smoothed.

The final area we looked at - although arguably the first and most important - was the design department, and in particular the archive.

Albini has bought several other brands over the years, including the English weaver Thomas Mason, and that makes up the majority of the archive.

Albiate, the more casual shirting line, also has some interesting old designs.

With suiting archives the striking thing is often how complex the cloths are - quite dull charcoals and browns overall, but with intricate little patterns and brighter colours woven in.

At Albini, the sheer abundance of colour and pattern was surprising. So many big checks, bright colours and textures, such as brushed cottons or satins.

Easy to forget how much TV and photography means we imagine the past in black and white.

Read how Albini sits within the shirting industry, and its various brands, here.