What turns a simple piece of wool into a garment? A well-thought design, a neat cut, or superb craftsmanship is part of the process but is an incomplete answer to this precise question. What really turns a piece of cloth into something wearable is, first of all, the body. To cover the body is always a way to transform it, to mystify the real forms, to present it in a new shape; in fewer words, to dress it. ‘To dress’ and ‘to cover’ are actions that can be easily read as two different ways to define the manners most human beings use to prepare themselves to get in contact with the outer world; an intermediate step that permits to have control on what is shown and what instead has to remain hidden, well protected into the dimension of the private self. What lingers ‘under the cover’ is what we want to keep private, and the cover becomes fundamental in its interaction with the body. What results from their encounter is the way we decide to communicate ourselves to the others.
However, when talking about covering the body, the first and most intuitive thing we can think about is not really a well architected outfit, nor even a structured garment, but something easier and more basic: the blanket. It is, simultaneously, less than a dress, because it has no apparent relationship with the form of the body; and more than a dress, since it can be shared, and holds back common experiences and memories, being private but not personal.
The blanket is first of all, the most simple and ancient object of protection. It carries the ancestral power of defence, both from cold and from fear, and develops an extremely intimate relationship with who is using it and who is hiding into it, serving, in its physical form, as a psychological layer on which feelings and thoughts deposit and can later be assimilated. This is even truer in some historical cases in which blankets have been charged with multiple meanings, in their essence of being more than mere objects, but still not considered as proper garments. Wool blankets have always been a fundamental part of the military equipment. In World War I, blankets served as the only shelter from any weather condition for soldiers who had to stay in the trenches and could not recover under any other repair. These blankets were made using good, thick wool, but the shag was heavy to carry and not warm enough to really help in extreme conditions. Wool was the only material capable of producing the necessary amount of heat, particularly in contact with the body, but this precious characteristic did not seem to be exploited in the right way. It was as if the fabric and the skin could not really get in contact with one another: the blanket just remained a sufficiently functional object, necessary but surely not comfortable, in which the material was not used in the right way, and its potential was somehow locked. What was missing was a deep consciousness of the properties of wool, and a project that took into account the influence of the human body into the deployment of these peculiarities.
Starting from these thoughts about the meaning of the blanket and the general ignorance about the properties of wool, an eminent employee of an Italian wool industry fused all these considerations with his detailed studies about physics and calorimetry. His name was Umberto Giandomenici. He dedicated the years between 1937 and 1951 to looking for the perfect formula to create a wool blanket able to establish a relationship with the body so strong that it would permit the wool to better retain heat from the body.
An eclectic personality, halfway between the unbending scientist and the most creative of the designers, Giandomenici applied rigorous studies about the functioning of the body and the properties of the material to the design practice.
Looking for a soul in an object mainly considered for its functionality, he discovered that he had to operate directly on the ‘soul’ of its fabric, on the soul of wool itself at the core of the blanket, to improve its intrinsic qualities. He introduced a heat-retentive napped fabric between two narrow layers of wool, with overall lightness as main characteristics, in order to facilitate and enhance the flow of heat and oxygen between body and fabric. In this way, the wool could emanate all its heating power, exploiting the part of energy that was usually kept between the fibres, and inevitably lost. Cold, on the other hand, was kept outside the retentive fabric by the second, external layer of wool.
This thermic blanket (thermocoperta is the right name, given by Giandomenici himself) had a strong cultural influence on the idea of covering, which passed from being a mere functional act to being in some way aestheticized, and related to the meaning people used to attribute to the blanket not as an object, but as a symbol. The communication strategy used to promote this new blanket was based on the reassuring ideas of home and family. Giandomenici always preferred to call his most brilliant invention ‘discovery’, as if the formula for the creation of this thermic blanket was a treasure-trove hidden somewhere in the wool, that he had had the privilege to unearth. The patent was registered in 1951, and from then on has been used for any type of blanket; not only military but also civil, curated in the design, and the principle has been applied to other parts of the wardrobe. Lanerossi, the Italian industry that financed Giandomenici and his research, used his intuitions to develop, with his supervision and enthusiasm, a whole wardrobe of garments designed following the principle of the thermo-blanket. In the creation of this ideal thermo-wardrobe, the blanket served as an archetype, a base form conjugated in many ways to open further roads of exploration.
Wool, a natural material in some way modified by human intellect, was from then on presented as something close to the needs of body and mind, supplying intimacy and security, in addition to warmth, in a real and figurative sense. The act of covering the body with a blanket got a totally new meaning, becoming an enjoyable pleasure, and not only the immediate response to a physiological necessity. In its simplicity and neatness in cut and design, the blanket was directly associated with the material, which received even more importance, because it was for its intrinsic properties that the ‘discovery’ had been possible. The combination between wool and human mind produced something more than a functional object: a timeless piece, that could be passed from mother to daughter without risks of losing its power, always spreading warmth, but holding back all the important memories, tightly woven into the fibres of its trusty fabric.
This text on Wool was written and submitted by Marta Franceschini for Round 2 of Modeconnect’s International Fashion Writing Competition. Check Marta’s entry for Round 1: To steal to sell: the act of copying in fashion