Knitwear

From the end of the nineteenth century up until the eve of World War II, knitwear consumption was monopolized, as the journalist and historian Elisa Massai wrote, by “British and Swiss supremacy in classic designs and French for boutique models.” During the second half of the nineteenth century, particularly in Lombardy and Piedmont, dozens of hosiery and knitwear production companies were formed. But although the market for vests and socks was strong, there was little demand for outer knitwear, given that consumers in search of a high quality cardigan or sweater looked to Scottish designs. This Anglophile trend damaged the market, and not without reason, throughout the first half of the twentieth century. The only exception to this was the success of high quality local consumption during the two wars, represented by the Perugian designer Luisa Spagnoli, who produced angora knitwear for women, and the Milanese Avon Celli, who made designs for men, both of whom were also pioneers of the export trade. The small outer knitwear companies, based on a decentralized production where the work was done by hand following the old traditions of home knitting, continued to operate with some difficulty. The production of knitted underwear, in many cases combined with hosiery, was more fortunate. According to the contemporary press, at the 1881 Expo the Milanese were captivated by the knitted striped textiles produced by the Boglietti Guglielminotti firm from Biella, by Volpato’s long-sleeved vests, by undervests, corsetry, woollen underpants, tights, and scarves. Although local products made little impression on the wardrobes of Italians, who preferred foreign pullovers, round-necked sweaters, cashmere and lambswool, at least they were more widely diffused in the underwear sector, without managing to move beyond those confines. Until the period of self sufficiency they had little success and life became even more wretched shortly afterwards, during the years of conflict. The advent of peace, combined with UNRRA aid (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration), the European Recovery Plan and the arrival of the first bales of wool and cotton, the widespread arrival of synthetic fibers using viscose, acetate and nylon threads (self-sufficiency at least served a purpose from this point of view), and the discovery of acrylic fibers and polyester: these were the developments that marked the beginning of success for the Italian knitwear industry, of victories in a sector that was considered by other countries to be mature, if not saturated. Italy was in ruins and people traveled by bicycle, but the period was marked by the arrival of the motor scooter and the first domestic appliances. Tragedy was still at the forefront of people’s memories and consumption was down. In an Italy where people knitted at home in order to save even on woolen underwear (producing prickly and scratchy garments made of coarse wool), the industry directed 97% of its output towards the internal market. The balance sheets did not make cheerful reading, given that demand had been reduced to a cinder. Technological reconstruction as a whole was in a desperate state. The industries mainly had hand-operated, rectilinear machines. The most avant-garde companies added motors to hand looms, a solution that did not even approach the automatic type. Domestic production by women still predominated, while “knitting circles” were very rare, with a dispersed production system using women based in the central and southern areas of the country on the increase. Some of the most active knitters were the women of Carpi, near Modena, where the crisis of the straw hat production forced them to take up needles and learn the craft of knitting pullovers. And so the Carpi phenomenon was born, then spreading across Emilia, Tuscany, Umbria, the Veneto, Piedmont, Lombardy and to the south, along the Adriatic coast, down to Bari, Putignano, and Barletta. It was the phenomenon of decentralised production that moved from knitting needles to cotton looms, to “knitting circles,” to Variantex and transformed country houses, utility rooms in apartments, barns, cupboards under stairs, stables, and into workshops. The vertical business model was abandoned, forming a geography of production that Elisa Massai and Paolo Lombardi described in their historical overview of the sector (“L’industria della maglieria nell’alta moda e nella moda pronta dal 1950 al 1980,” in La moda Italiana, Electa, 1987). They relate how “the vertical company was substituted by the combined presence, within a short distance, of all the production processes: spinning, dyeing, knitting, sewing up, pressing, machinery factories, maintenance workshops.” It was the beginning of the 1950s. Italian prosperity had yet to arrive, and with it the desire for a more relaxed wardrobe, suitable for leisure time. The success of Italian knitwear could only be achieved by increasing the export market. The first signs of this came in 1951: 1,341 tons of goods sold abroad (in order of quantity: socks, outer knitwear, knitted gloves, knitted underwear), in England, Germany, France, and the United States, for a value of 5 billion lire, equal to 31 million dollars. Most of the exports were fashion products, by Laura Aponte and Marisa Arditi from Rome, by Lea Galleani from Milan, by the knitwear factory Mariangelo, by Mirsa and Luisa di Gresy. The clients were Dorville House in London and the Magnin stores in San Francisco and Los Angeles. It was a luxury export, the type that would make the Avagolf label famous a few years later. A very elitist outlet, which was expanded by companies in Carpi, which offered the rest of Europe sweaters, pullovers, and large jumpers with creative designs, the opposite of a standardized production, perhaps lacking a high level of finishing and technical aspects but unbeatable in terms of price and fashionable content. It was no coincidence that the Made in Italy project of Giovanni Battista Giorgini’s Florentine fashion house was launched in 1951: a show of Italian fashions in front of a small group of American buyers. For the first time, Italian designers realized their own potential and presented themselves to the rest of the world. Success was immediate and, on the American markets, it also acted as a showcase and a propeller for unsigned Italian products. This success reverberated across all the phases of knitwear production and throughout the entire sector, which began, suitcase in hand, to follow the export road far and wide. That first leap of 1951, was followed by an immediate hike. It initiated a growth at accelerated rhythms, which only began to slow twenty years later, in 1972. Two decades of constant growth and, at the end of it, the figures testify to a 60% increase in exports compared with the start of the period. However, not everything during that time was rosy, or easily achieved. Increases in production costs created problems, as did competition with countries from the developing world. But the flexibility of the structure, elasticity of management, entrepreneurial intelligence, and market intuition overcame these difficulties. In the mid 1960s, Asian competition crossed the path of Italian knitwear on the American market, which alone absorbed 28% of the country’s exports. It was an enormous conquest, but the loss of competitiveness forced Italy to retreat noticeably. In 1971, the US quota of global exports had dropped to 6% and was made up almost entirely of high quality products, because Tawain, Korea, and Hong Kong were by then unbeatable at producing low-cost goods. More than a retreat, it was almost a total failure, but softened by a parallel increase in European sales. After taking a beating across the ocean, the Italian industry launched a counter-attack in the countries of the Common Market, increasing the fashion content of the products and, in order to bring down costs, speeding up decentralization, even extending to zones that were “still characterized by the availability of unemployed labor.” It was no coincidence that an industrial census of 1971 revealed that unemployment at national level had doubled over the previous ten years, and that the geography of knitwear production had significantly changed, with a drop in Piedmont and Lombardy, contrasted by increases in Emilia-Romagna (18% of the national workforce), the Veneto (15%), Tuscany (8%), and Apulia (4.6%). Despite the American crisis, the export market grew 260% between 1966 and 1972, with peaks of 14% in Germany and 5% in France and Benelux. The “miracle” continued, helped by the increasing fashion for casual, informal wear, encouraged by the political events of 1968, and the growing importance of leisure time. However, success began to fade. Asian products began to swamp the European markets as well. The petrol crisis and the subsequent wave of inflation suffocated consumption. A tough period followed but fortunately it did not last too long. The two years 1973-74 registered a significant drop. In Europe people began to speak of a saturated sector that needed to be broken up. The European Community was to put embargoes on imports from low-cost countries. But it was neither luck nor these embargoes that the entire clothing and textile sector needed to move onwards. The very Italian weapon of decentralization provided the key to maintain and relaunch the country’s presence in the field. Unlike other countries, which were hindered by slow, more elephantine entrepreneurial structures, Italy was able to resurrect its knitwear industry precisely because its production was decentralized and its organization was pliable enough to permit a counter-attack. It could defend itself, study its opponents, size up the field and embark on a come-back in a short period as soon as opportunities presented themselves. The adversary was competition in the medium-low and low cost sectors. Knitwear was an instinctive market, made up of quick changes, that little by little was being reduced by dominance of designers who anticipated new tendencies and dictated broad styles of dress. In order to escape the crisis, knitwear raised its aim and increased its fashion content (Missoni, Krizia, Valentino, Albertina, Avagolf, Noni Sport, Alma, Milena Mosele, Naka, Pier Luigi Tricò and, shortly afterwards, Armani, Antonella Tricot, Biagiotti, Malo Tricò, Blumarine, Napoleone Erba, Tricò Cinque), personalizing the product with a strong image and brand politics and refining the “counter-attack” strategy. The companies’ structures were closely positioned to the point of consumption. Benetton is the exemplary case: it changed its commercial relationship with its own sales network, moving directly to retail, and installed tills with computers, so that details of sales and changes in demand could be transferred directly to the company. Thus it was possible to calibrate quantities and assortments of new stock rapidly and also, given the link between management and production lines, to intervene in mid-season to alter the color palette according to information arriving from the sales points. The “counter-attack” was successful. From 1974 to 1984, knitwear experienced growth comparable to that in the 1960s, despite the less favorable economic world climate: production increased by 32%; exports by 66%; employment (roughly 153,000 employees) did not suffer significant cutbacks even in the face of increasingly sophisticated technology. During the same period and in the same sector in other European countries, production and employment dropped by 18% and 24% respectively. This positive trend continued in 1985-86. In the first of those years production volumes increased by 7.3% and exports by 14%. In 1986, production increased by 14.6% and exports by 17.2% but — a danger signal — imports increased significantly (25.9%), a phenomenon that grew over the next few years. In the following decade, with the exception of 1992, the trend was negative: 1998 closed with a drop in production and exports of approximately 15% compared with 1986, the final year of growth. In contrast, knitwear imports went through the roof: roughly 1000% more compared with 1986. Despite this, at the end of the twentieth century, the commercial balance of the Italian knitwear sector (2.7 billion dollars) remained positive.