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Standing for Manifattura Italiana Tessuti Indemagliabili, MITI has been at the front of ‘knitting innovation since 1931'. We arrive at the factory in Urgnano, an outlier town of Bergamo, and enter a marble floored hall where “loom number one” sits. Sales Director Marco Magrini, in his perfect English, explains that Miti were the first Italian mill to use the warp knitting technique. Warp knitting runs yarns in a parallel pattern, which allows for the construction of durable and stretchy fabrics.
The other relic of history in the hallway is a bust of Vincenzo Polli on which Cavaliere del Lavoro (knight of industry) is inscribed under his name. The father of the company, Polli was fascinated by the technology he could use to create textiles, bringing in German-made machines to establish Italy’s premier fabric mill. Only in the 1950s did other Italian companies follow this innovation for mechanical warp knitting, a technique allowing for more intricate construction.
Today the greige fabric (raw fabric) is milled six hours away in Hungary, near the border with Slovenia. Miti’s sixty or so state-of-the-art looms create all the greige there before it is brought by truck to the plant in Urgnano for processing, dyeing and finishing.
These machines (imagine the inside of a massive robotic piano) are loaded with up to six rolls or ‘beams’ of yarn of varying gauge (threads per cm). Set-up of the loom takes a whole working day, but then the looms can run non-stop for up to two weeks. If one yarn breaks the loom stops and the technician has to thread it back through the needle. This can take between 20 minutes to an hour. It’s a combination of software and the human eye. Specific structures require specific skills that only come with experience.
I ask Marco where the raw materials come from for the knitting of Miti fabrics. All are mostly EU sources. Miti need consistency in their materials (a theme we keep returning to).100 to 200 kilos of greige fabric – which equates to 300 metres of finished fabric – is knitted per single loom each day. It’s wrapped, stocked and transported to Italy every other day.
“We have to provide a very quick service.”
Miti is perhaps best known for its Roubaix fabrics. Superroubaix® and Thermoroubaix® have been developed for the most severe cycling conditions, hence the (after Paris-Roubaix) name. These brush-back fabrics are a big part of the Miti portfolio. A market leading fabric since the 1980s, superseding the use of wool and acrylic, there is no better product of its kind on the market. Soft, comfortable and durable.
The family of Roubaix fabrics is today extensive, with sub-names like 'Tecnowarm' and 'Lombardia'. Double function fabric innovation continues with Winterfit™, a new material which can wick inside yet is water repellent on the outside. The latest incarnation features proprietary DWR (durable water repellency) coatings. And with Arrowind™, tightly constructed and yet stretchy and breathable with very low air permeability. Again, chemical treatments and proofings are something Miti leads the field in.
“We produce them 12 months of the year as the demand is so high in peak season. If we cannot provide this quickly and on time, we wouldn’t lead the market.”
Marco takes us on a tour of the facility in Urgnano. He shows us first the water purification facility. “Water is fundamental – we have calculated that for one year’s production we use as much as a small mountain lake.” These millions of litres of water have the minerals taken out to make it clean and soft when it comes into contact with the yarns. The PH for cleaning and dyeing needs to be very specific and this is an important part of the process.
Waste and efficiency is a big concern for Miti. They have Blue Sign accreditation and are committed to managing waste responsibly and being as energy efficient as possible.
“In other areas of the world, the pollution generated by the textile industry is huge.”
We move into a giant hangar painted a refreshing mint green where the greige fabric is cleaned. “When the fabrics are knitted on the loom, there is still some grease and oil on them.” This part of the production process is where Miti have made the most advances in reducing waste. The levels of chemicals and dirt is read by the machines to see how clean the fabrics are.
It’s like the biggest laundrette you’ve ever been in with workers in red polo shirts moving large trolleys of laundry around and loading and maintaining the machines.
We are shown the chemical lab where the colours and dyestuffs are mixed from beakers and test tubes, then sampled on small pieces of greige fabric. They try to simulate the industrial process, matching the colour reference supplied to them by the designers and then applying it to the appropriate fabric. Maurizio, the colour engineer, suggests some of the funkier colours Rapha requests keep him busy. “Every eye is different in its perception of a colour.” The input from the colour engineer is then used to create the actual dyestuff.
Then it's into a sci-fi-style airlock and another room with large computer cabinets calculate and weigh the dyestuffs. Once mixed, they are piped down to the dye-plant.
As we walk more of the factory floor Marco asks we don’t take pictures of certain machines because some of them have been modified and custom made for MITI.
“Where are they made?”
“Aaah… Italy. The machines are made in Italy.”
Miti invest a lot in the leading technology and clearly don’t leave anything to chance.
We then move on to see the brushing operation which creates the Roubaix category of fabrics. Fine metal nails raise the hair on the fabrics with a different orientation for each phase. They are very sensitive and exact in order to get the correct texture without damaging the outside fibres for those cosy winter tights. The machine is constantly cleaning, extractors sucking up all the dust. Marco suggests they produce over a million metres of Superroubaix® per year alone. Then the fabric gets rolled with each length stitched to the next length in order to be dyed.
There are two different processes for dyeing, depending on the construction and fibres of the fabric. Some are steady in the machine and the water and chemicals are pumped through. These look like oversized washing machines. Other fabrics are rolled and whisked in other vertical barrels more reminiscent of ice cream makers. Depending on the fabric quantities required, different sized machines are used. The sound of jets and hydraulics washing the fabrics with dyestuff almost drowns Marco out as he explains:
“Dyeing time depends on fabric, it can be up to ten hours as we need consistency from the centre of the roll to the top.”
We then head to the Physical Lab where tests of the fabrics are carried out: using fabric swatches to see how they react under different types of light, washing and heating them to try colour-fastness. The technical limits of the fibres and construction is tested with stretching and moisture movement. Then on another work station abrasion, snagging and pilling devices whirr and stamp squares of colourful fabrics. The lab – kept at a crisp room temperature – is run by Mr P. Luigi Giassi who is skipping lunch today (which seems abnormal in Italy). Giassi certainly cuts the figure of a patient and dedicated scientist.
We move into the finishing department where rows of glass-fronted cabinets hold records of thousands of customers’ specific fabrics. Marco selects a Rapha swatch card to show us. “Rapha make so many lab dips…”
Here they also visually inspect the fabric by eye. If there is any flaw, it’s marked with a sticker so the manufacturer (such as Nalini) can cut patterns from only the most perfect parts of the material. It then goes into an automatic wrapping facility, folded without tension, wrapped in plastic and then barcoded for a specific position in the warehouse or loading bay. They really look after their fabrics, hanging many of the rolls to prevent any damage from pressure. This huge warehouse is also where the greige fabric from Hungary arrives for processing in Urgnano.
In the loading bay are shipments for Vancouver, a store in Macao in China, Tokyo, an American brand manufactured in Colombia and a factory in Romania where (amongst others) Barbour produce garments.
“We are the major supplier for almost all the cycling brands.”
Marco knows the bicycle industry just as well as his company’s textile technology, discussing the ‘locomotive’ effect of Bradley Wiggins on British cycling and the continued popularity of cycling in his native Lombardy. A name for quality goes a long way, and as our visit concludes (even the canteen meal is impressive) you realize the firm has truly earnt its reputation.
“Reputation is everything and to get the reputation you need to have consistency and quality.”
Supplying a range of fabrics to everyone from small niche companies to big name players is supported by the speed at which Miti supply customers. The continued innovation and keeping everything as close to home as possible also gives Miti an advantage over their lower-priced competitors.