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“Rapha’s denim is on the loom as we speak.” says Luca Zacconi as he walks me across the car park to the main factory building.

20 May 2014

Mectex, in Erba in Lombardy, was founded in 1960. With a history that includes creating the stretch ‘dominator’ fabric for Francesco Moser’s world-hour-record skinsuit, in 1984, Mectex is one of the leading producers of stretch fabrics for athletes, sportswear labels and luxury brands.

“The idea is always about customising,” says Zacconi, “as we have done with the denim for Rapha. We can’t compete with Asia [on price] any more, so we now focus on working in partnership with our customers, creating special fabrics for special clients.”

Close to Como, a popular cycling region not far from the Swiss border, the Mectex factory seems to house the usual factory departments: a sampling office, laboratory and a huge hangar for warping and wefting fabrics. I ask Luca what sets Mectex apart and he replies instantly: “Luxury sportswear. At the moment we are working on nano-yarns for jackets, light, soft, nano-cotton, like silk at 50gpsm. It’s very technical, mixing the nature of yarns.

Above the whirring of the weft machines, like high-paced typewriters, production manager Valeria Fassi explains a little more:

“We do everything internally, mixing the yarns, the warp and weft processes; twisting the yarns, dyeing the yarn. With Rapha denim it’s a special blend of polyamide, cotton and Elastane. Mixing yarns of different dimensions creates a specific consistency which offers great stretch but also is also resistant to abrasion.”

Our footsteps echo down stone steps to the basement, where the looms are warping the dark blue Rapha denim. Yarn is fed onto the looms from racks, each housing hundreds of bobbins spinning out spidery webs of yarn, every metre of warped fabric requires 500 bobbins alone. All Mectex greige (raw thread) is sourced in Italy, then dyed before the weaving process begins.

“We inspect 100% of the greige before washing, dyeing and so on,” says Luca. “Then we re-inspect the fabric when it’s finished.”

In the basement where the warping is done, industrial computers monitor for any inconsistencies in the yarn, such as knots, dust and dirt. If any are detected, the computers’ software halts the procedure. It takes two ‘faces’ of fabric to create the warp fabric, not to mention the concentration and keen eye of the machine operators. It’s then moved onto beams and into the inspection room, before it’s sent up to the next floor for the weft process. Here, the beams from downstairs are run onto rollers and the cotton yarn is fed through the loom or ‘shuttled’ with air jets, from left to right.

Once the fabric is woven, it’s rolled onto large beams and wheeled into the warehouse for inspection. Rapha then visit to check the fabric before it’s shipped out to be cut and stitched into pairs of jeans. I ask if it is one of the more difficult fabrics to produce.

“There are two yarns, dyed colours, and cotton is also not a regular yarn, so there are flares in the fibre, irregularities in the cotton,” explains Valeria. “This is a natural fibre and we’re weaving it with other man-made yarns. The most difficult thing with this fabric for us was testing it, as there is no laboratory test to replicate the effect of cycling. And, of course, there are different variables, so we had to work with Rapha’s designers to test the denim on the bike, in the saddle. Rapha product designers also tested the denim against regular cotton jeans.”

A bit like changing the ingredients of a tried and tested recipe, the weave of the denim developed between Mectex and Rapha has been a painstaking process. Once it’s all carefully set up – like a printing press – the warp and weft process whirrs into life, constantly being checked by both human and machine.

“We’re creating the yarns to complement the cotton to give the stretch and strength. Once we start changing the width and weight of these yarns, we have to start the process all over again.” We move into an office with shelves stacked high with tubular fabric samples. Here, files for each company Mectex work with are stored for reference: new lab dips, samples and current developments are all hatched and hypothesised here. Then it’s up another stone stairwell to the Mectex laboratory.

Machines and apparatus such as a ‘dynamometer’, to test the stretch of the yarn and fabric, sit quietly in the lab. There are machines for pilling and abrasion, what looks like cooking equipment to test that the tenacity and torsion of the yarn and contraptions for checking against sunlight. All this is extremely important for fabrics used in performance materials designed for durability. All yarns are checked and tested before they are sent to the loom for consistency.

The Mectex lab is the domain of Gabriele Fassi, Valeria’s brother. Today he is head of innovation and development but has been working at Mectex for 47 years, since leaving university and almost as long as the company has existed.

Gabrieleand his technicians work in developing yarns and weaves, finding out how fibres work, the technical possibilities of woven stretch fabrics and translating those for the needs of the customer. Bringing an encyclopaedic knowledge of textiles and ‘artistry’ to fabric design, he was the main man involved in creating the Rapha denim.

“The idea was to have an elegant luxury effect of denim, without the problems and irregularities of typical jeans material, making something that looks like denim but acted more robustly. Because it was such a speciality fabric, it took some time to develop even the first samples. There aren’t many suppliers who can offer this kind of product.”

I ask Gabriele if there are many who understand the textiles industry as well as he does.

“It’s a long story. This is a specialism that’s dying out. We make sports fabrics for the best results. We make non-stretch fabrics for water repellency, but our expertise is in stretch. Consistency and tension in warp and weft, the same characteristics in the fabric produced each time. We have a good team of technicians, always thinking about different effects on fabrics. They work well to help us maintain the quality.”

The problem today, Gabriele explains, is that the textiles industry is moving increasingly away from Europe. This means less choice, less experience and, consequently, less innovation, too. Crucially, innovation is something both Rapha and Mectex hold very dear.