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November 04, 2015

“The challenge,” our host began, “is to get the color uniformly distributed throughout the yarn.” We were walking on the floor of the dye room as he spoke, meandering through the fabric mill’s large vats. Light poured in from a vaulted ceiling overhead, perfect for seeing the rainbow of colors that were created here. This was not an accident, our host confirmed.

Dying cotton for fine fabrics has a beguilingly simple goal: consistency and uniformity. But the process for achieving it is anything but. 

We quickly learned that the large vats — into which cones of thread are carefully dipped — are marvels of precision, designed to subject fibers to precise temperatures, pressures, and of course, the carefully calibrated dyes themselves.

In fact, they reminded us of similar instruments used by the vineyards in the country’s Northwest, the home of its famous Barolo and Barbaresco wines (also, perhaps, because lunch was in the offing). Large tanks of gleaming metal, spotlessly clean and carefully attended to.

As we watched, a medium-sized collection of raw, beige-colored cones descended into one of the tanks and its top was slowly lowered to seal them in.

Sometime later, when they emerged, they were a startling shade of deep indigo.

“Looks nice, doesn’t it?” our host went on. We agreed.

*** 

While the dyeing room may be where the action is, we soon learned that what separates the world’s finest fabrics actually takes place in a far less conspicuous location. In fact, it looks more like a college chemistry lab than a large-scale manufacturing center.

As we entered “the lab” — formally designated the quality control department — we came upon several women in white lab coats, who looked up briefly from their benches.

“Even though the colors look correct to the eye, you need to check them against an objective standard” our host explained, “since the human eye can be deceiving.” 

The takeaway? Even though the process for dyeing cotton is obsessively controlled, nothing is left to chance. To test the color accuracy we watched one of the lab technicians pull a fabric cone under a spectrometer. For every color that is created, a certain percentage of the cones are pulled aside and checked to ensure that the uniformity is there.

“You can’t have thread that loses saturation as you go, for example. You have to know that the color at the beginning of the cone is the same as at the end.”

And then there is colorfastness as well. On another bench a women pulled a swatch of fabric from a finished weave under a machine that looked a little like a small drill press. When the press came down the fabric was rubbed back and forth vigorously. When she finished a small strip of white fabric was slipped out from underneath to see if any of the swatch’s color had rubbed off. “Perfetto”, she smiled, holding up the clean white strip.

When the cones had passed inspection they were loaded onto racks in order to be respooled to the precise length required for weaving, as determined by the fabric pattern. As we walked down the isles of brightly colors cones, we marveled at the consistency and vibrancy of the colors.

It was a simple but powerful lesson: each part of the process is a building block for the next. Perfect yarns for perfect fabrics.


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