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The never-ending story of recycling wool, according to Manteco

While the fashion industry struggles to find solutions to lower its footprint, an Italian wool recycling enterprise has developed a way to reach a zero-waste system

The three ways of recycling wool

When talking about recycling practices, if we consider wool, there are three ways of recycling it. The first one is a closed-loop system: a mechanical way through which a garment made of wool is shredded and converted into a fiber, to be spinned. Then, there is an open-loop system, where the fabric of a garment made in wool is converted in its function, which could be for padding or something similar. The third solution is to re-engineer a product, to reuse a garment in another way, converting it into another kind of object, modifying its form without touching its fabric. All these ways of recycling wool have been implemented in the Tuscan city of Prato since the Middle Ages but enhanced after World War II. The rag industry was born out of necessity and scarcity of virgin wool, and Prato has grown to become the first city for wool recycling of high quality in the XXI century. Here bales of wool composition items arrive from worldwide, then separated by color and kind of wool by technicians by hand.

Prato: the city of wool recycling

In Prato, the concept of circular economy was put into practice long before the idea of sustainability gained momentum in the public eye and entered the UN Agenda. One enterprise that is improving wool recycling techniques and strategies is Manteco, created in 1943 by Enzo Mantellassi under the name of Lanificio San Marco. The name was changed to Manteco (Mantellassi Compagnia Tessile) in 1983 by Enzo’s son Franco, while the enterprise was starting to gain recognition for the quality and variety of regenerated wool colors that it could offer. Since 2000, the heads of the company are the brothers Matteo and Marco, Enzo’s nephews. Under their direction, in 2014 the enterprise started to apply a zero-waste policy, an extremization of lower-waste policies carried forward by brands in the fashion industry. The goal was to reach a level of sustainability that accords to the UN Agenda standards. «Recycling is sustainable per se, but we wanted to avoid greenwashing and decided to be evaluated through scientific data», explains Matteo Mantellassi, talking about the company’s decision to get certified by 4sustainability. «During our certification process, we found out that we could recycle not only the excesses of virgin wool, resulting from our virgin wool fabrics’ production, but also the production scraps of recycled wool fabrics»

Manteco fabrics made with MWool

The Life Cycle Assessment takes into consideration each stage of a fabric creation, from raw materials to the final product, and enables Manteco to understand where to take action to reduce the impact on the environment. «Thanks to it, we managed to reduce water consumption by eighty-seven percent, CO2 emissions by seventy-four percent and the total amount of energy consumption by fifty-eight percent, applying the LCA to BiBye». Since 2019, the company has been applying the LCA to the production of all of its fabrics. Manteco has developed a closed-loop system that sets the standard for a use of raw materials, water, energy, and chemicals that applies at its maximum the idea of a circular economy. «Materials are kept in use forever» continues Mantellassi «and this with wool is possible. We have created a department within the company that deals with the gathering of scraps and leftovers generated by our production network, including selvedges, weaving trials and sampling leftovers».

Recycled wool at Manteco Spa, photography D.Burberi

Lampoon review: Manteco’s MWool and Recipe process

Every recycled fabric made by Manteco is based on MWool, a material chosen «as a symbol of innovation, sustainability and circularity» in the fashion world, at the Italian Pavilion of 2021 Biennale of Architecture. What defines MWool fabrics is the high selection of raw materials, hundreds of quality checks, a Durability Treatment and a range of more than 1000 NO-DYE colors in which it can be purchased to fashion brands, included in the Infinite Color Collection that counts more than a thousand color grades.

They are obtained thanks to a process that avoids the use of dying or chemicals, taking advantage of the colors that the wool garments had in their previous life. «Our raw materials department is formed by artisans that refer to our colors archive, and each time they have to find the right receipt of colors to reach the right ones already in the collection». Every time a new used-garments bale arrives, it has to be separated by color grade and by material. Then, color artisans take a sample from every garment, or color bale, and mix it with other shades of similar colors, or even with other colors, to reach the exact grade that is needed. «For example: a client wants a certain shade of rose from our catalogue, and we have finished that fabric. The artisans could blend together white and purple fabrics, maybe adding some yellow, until they obtain the receipt that says what percentage is needed, of what kind of fabric available at that moment». The point is that, with recycling, raw materials change in time, and a consequence is the changing of available colors.

With this MWool Recype process, «recycling is brought to a luxury level, because of the craftsmanship techniques required to obtain it». The ragman’s work resembles the work of a painter, who has to calibrate the colors on the color board, before trying them on the canvas. Then, in the case of wool, it comes in aid of the mechanical phase of blending where the artisan has to control the way color blends in the machine, and decides how many times to pass the fibers through it until obtaining the right recycled fiber. Then, the zero-waste policy is respected due to the way Manteco fabrics are designed. «They have to be eligible to be reinserted in our circular-economy system. We ask them to think about the fantasy and the sewing of their garments, and to the label, to avoid colors and materials that differentiate too much from the main fabric. A resulting garment, made keeping all these aspects in mind, will be easier to recycle than, let’s say, one green t-shirt with orange sewing and a polyester label». With the Recype process, Manteco wants to avoid the use of chemicals, refining instead a no-dye wool color that, combined with a zero-waste policy, nullifies any material and water wasting. 

Manteco

Italian recycling factory and spinning mill, Manteco was founded in Prato in 1943 by Enzo Mantellassi, In the 2000s Enzo’s nephews Marco and Matteo entered the family enterprise, enhancing its sustainability policies. In 2021, Manteco MWool was chosen as a symbol of innovation, sustainability, and circularity in the fashion world.

Sofia Busignani

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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