Not many people would compare South Africa with a European country. However, there is something that we have in common. They suffered a decline in their textile industry that was caused by Eastern countries becoming more competitive in the marketplace (you’ve all heard the phrase ‘cheap imports’). The retailers picked up on this and offered consumer’s product at a better price and they loved it. The local manufacturers couldn’t fight the change and slowly they closed their doors. The same has happened in South Africa. Things however are changing a bit – the East isn’t as competitive as it used to be and we the consumer are waking up to our responsibility and realizing our power. Even though the local linen supplier, an Irish company called Herdmans, sadly closed down, this isn’t a depressing story about the decline of South African textiles. This is a story about survival and I came upon one such example on a trip to Italy to visit our new supplier of linen yarn.
“We the consumer are waking up to our responsibility and realizing our power”
Linificio Canapificio Nazionale started spinning linen yarn in 1873 and weathered the decline by diversifying their production capacity and opening a plant in Tunisia, before anyone else thought to do it. Their focus has become the production of the best quality linen in the world and this all starts with the plant and the farmer. I learnt that in order to do this they have nurtured long-lasting relationships with a handful of farmers in the growing regions of Belgium and France. These farmers help them to choose the best crops for that year’s production before the plants have even been harvested. From that point forward there are multiple selection processes in which the fibre is sorted into batches of varying quality and colouring which inevitably dictates the end use. The best of course being selected for Mungo….ok maybe not… the best is spun so fine that the emperor of Japan has it meticulously woven by hand into handkerchiefs. They produce something like 3kgs per day of this particular quality and it’s only possible because of 140 years of experience and a meticulous production process (to put that into context they would normally spin 350kg per day.
We weave the 44 LEA into linen bedding and the 25 LEA into table linen. The smaller the number the thicker the yarn. Probably an Irish thing; they are known for their amazing linen too…
They very politely showed me their range of catalogues, of their range of yarns.
- Hemp/linen blends
- Organic linen
- Reactive dyed
- Indanthrene dyed
- Dyed effects
They waited for me to come visit before pulling that lot out. Our first order was from a selection of 2 different qualities and 50 colours. I would still be confused had they not helped control the ordering process.
After a tour of their facility (the one in Italy, not Tunisia or Lithuania), I was taken to lunch by the CEO of the Marzotto group, who owns Linificio, the General Manager, Sales Director and my contact, a Frenchman called Fabrice who is the Export Sales Executive. In true Italian style they gave of their day and their hospitality, whilst in true South African fashion I told them of our wild adventures and crazy shenanigans and at the same time tried to direct my wife and 14 month old through the freezing streets of Bergamo to our accommodation for the night, via Whatsapp. Should have ordered the wine for lunch, then I might have got the Grappa but they probably thought I didn’t drink when I declined the wine, and I needed the wine…
My experience of textiles comes from my father, a ‘man of the cloth’ as he likes to say; it’s in his blood. Sadly all he has been able to show me of South Africa’s once thriving textile industry is that of rot and decline, factories closing, machines running out of purpose and love, people losing their knowledge and livelihood. So to be introduced to a strong and thriving entity such as Linificio Canapificio Nazionale is overwhelming and invigorating. It has helped me to put Mungo into context – what makes us strong, and what makes us weak. And it’s not the declining industry or the cheap imports…