by David Isle

Today many fabrics market themselves for their fineness or softness – which feel luxurious in the store, but often result in a garment that loses its shape or even falls apart after a season or two.

But tailors and their best clients often prefer cloth with more body and texture. Whereas today mills – especially the Italian ones - compete by breeding sheep into higher and higher Super numbers for their wools, the textile arms race of the last century was waged with the aim of building hardier cloth that would respond graciously to the tailor's iron, and endure decades of service. The old mills are now going extinct, and it's harder and harder to find cloth that would meet the approval of the tailors of the previous generation.

However, casentino wool, that venerable fern, remains a hardy survivor.

It comes from the Tuscan town of the same name, where wool-making has been a tradition since the Etruscans ruled there. Casentino's distinctive look comes from little ringlets that fray off from the fabric's surface. The effect looks a little like pilling, but is intentional, in order to make the wool both warmer and more durable. Originally the effect was achieved by taking a fresh length of wool and beating it with a sort of stick that would break off some threads which would then curl up and form the fabric's distinctive texture. Today this process is done by machine, but the basic idea is the same. Abrasive instruments agitate the fabric to produce a rough finish, which is then smoothed out into something more uniform.

In the Middle Ages, Tuscan monks wore robes out of casentino wool. The House of Savoy, which conquered Italy towards the end of the 19th century, elevated the cloth to royal status by using a bright orange variety as a decorative and warming cloth for their most prized possessions, their horses. This bright orange color became the typical color of casentino when soon after Florentine men began using it for overcoats, usually double-breasted. Verdi and Puccini were admirers. Casentino coats are still worn by Italian men today, particularly in Florence.

If you find the orange color or the double breasted style of the traditional casentino coat too particular, even in the less bombastic browns, blues, and grays, of traditional menswear, the distinctive finish of casentino wool adds an insouciant character to an otherwise conservative garment.