Italy and in particular Florence were always considered big players in the wool industry. Through the power of the local unions and guilds Florence was able to maintain its position in this sector, reaping economic wealth on local industries. With the dawn of new technology, neighboring communities made attempts to enter the market. Thwarted by constrictions and limitations to their production methods imposed by the bigger players these outlining industries had to develop unique products to give added value their wares. It was through a miscalculation in production that one of the more peculiar creations entered into the market to become a status symbol throughout Tuscany and Italy.
Wool has been a constant, thriving economic force in Italy as far back as the Etruscans, Romans and the Medici Family. It is a fact that the banking houses in Florence built their wealth on the wool industry. Cities such as Prato and Florence were widely recognized and prospered with their refined wool industry due to a strong wool guild which worked to keep their local producers privileged with the best opportunities. Surrounding producers were often only commissioned with limited duties and were prohibited from spinning refined or luxury wool so as to limit competition. An abundant source of raw material came from the Casentino Valley, where the Arno river starts its trek to Florence, and was perhaps one of the largest suppliers of high quality raw material in Tuscany.
One of the limitations stipulated by the wool guilds was prohibit them from making highly refined wools and transforming this material into clothing and personal accessories. To the touch, processed wool has a smooth feel versus the wool used for the locals (aka peasants) which was rough. In particular, the texture of the panno Casentino is characterized by soft curls on the surface of the processed wool which resembles “piling,” a result found on older pieces of cloth many times caused by excessive use. This distinctive effect creates not only a warm and resistant cloth but also waterproof. The process of adding these curls was labor intensive until the friezing machine with its metal combs using modern technology making it easier to produce large quantities.
In the late 1800’s with new technology, Casentino sought to further commercialize their natural resource, and introduced a “mantelline per cavalcature” to the market. This was basically a thick, water-resistant blanket used to cover, keep warm and protect work animals that hauled large loads. Traditionally, this cover originally produced in a deep red – but due to an error when they mixed the chemicals to soften the wool, the color came out a vivid orange. Like most trends, it was a twist of fate that turned this rough cloth with its unique color into a fashion accessory.
The “panno Casentino” was soon admired by illustrious names such as Baron Ricasoli and the opera composers Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini. The result was that this brightly colored felted wool was fashioned into a double-breasted jacket complete with a fox fur collar which became a very Italian symbol of wealth and prestige of the upper echelon. A reputation that is still widely recognized in Italy today.