I learned about the company Manteco from an Instagram ad. Usually, I just keep scrolling, but there was something about them that caught my eye and made me pause. And boy am I glad that I did! It took me only a few minutes on their website to realize they were a pretty legit source for using recycled wool, recycled cashmere, recycled alpaca blends, and even recycled cotton textiles.
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I got to chat with Mattia the Head Of Communication + Photography and learn even more about the company and all of its offerings. And, just to be clear, I was not paid or incentivized to write about Manteco in any way. I just think they are a cool company, doing cool things, and helping small brands. If you know me, then you know that getting featured on the virtue + vice blog is almost impossible - I’m here to bring you the facts, not promotions. I have covered recycled polyester made from old plastic bottles, and now I am super excited to share about another type of fiber recycling being done by an amazing company.
Manteco started recycling wool, back in the 1940s. That’s over 80 years ago!
This is one of the craziest things to me about some eco fabrics. While they are finally just starting to hit the mainstream, some of them, like Manteco, have been around for decades. And, like with khadi, I am a huge fan of old-school manufacturing techniques. Because I think the future of the industry lies in the past.
Back when Manteco first got started, it was much harder to get raw materials like wool. So the company was created as a workaround to the limited materials they had access to. Manteco started using the old jackets, pants, and uniforms that were left behind by the US Army in Prato and turning them into new yarns. (At that time Manteco was only producing recycled yarns, not textiles).
You might be having a bit of a Deja Vu feeling right now. I wrote an article about zero-waste in India that also has a similar sentiment. That’s because many of the most eco options we have are quite old school, and were born out of our ancestor’s lack of resources.
Fast Forward To Today
Manteco processes 5-6 million kg of fibers per year to be spun into yarns and then woven and knit into fabrics.
These fabrics are made from two different types of raw materials. The first is post-consumer wool sources, like old worn wool garments. And, the second is. pre-consumer wool waste that is a by-product from the manufacturing process and also unsold garments.
How New Fabrics Are Made From Old Customer’s Garments
Breaking Them Down
First, they sort the old clothes by color and fiber composition. Then, everything is shred. The machine looks like a large conveyer belt. And, as the sweaters move through the system they are torn apart until they are broken back down into only fibers.
The cool thing about Manteco’s system is that they only use mechanical actions to break down the fibers.
A lot of new recycling companies today (especially cotton recycling companies) will break down the garments using chemicals - in their systems cotton goes in, but new rayon comes out. With Manteco there is no chemical change. So, whatever goes into the system wool, cashmere, etc, comes out on the other end.
Once the garments have been reduced to only fibers, new colors are created. Again, no chemical dyes are used in this process. Instead, different fibers colors are mixed together (just like paint) to create a totally new color through the recycling process.
Manteco has created more than 1000 different colors, each with its own unique “recipe”. And, they are so good at this color mixing, they are even able to match customers custom colors.
Getting the perfect mix of different fiber color blends can be difficult. So, to make sure they get it right, first they test the recipe with 50 grams of fibers. Once they have it perfect, they are then able to multiply the ratios and create larger quantities that are thousands of kilos.
At this point, we have a big tangled mess of fibers. And, the first step to making yarn is getting all the fibers to face in the same direction. For this, a carding machine is used. It kind of looks like two big brushes that comb one another. As the fibers pass through they rearrange to all face the same direction.
During this time they also check the final fabric color by felting the fibers, this gives an idea of what the fibers will eventually look like in fabric form.
Once all of the fibers are into formation, they are brought to the spinning mill that will pull, twist, and turn them into yarns.
The yarns are then sent to a coning mill. Where, just like it sounds, they are wound onto paper cones. During this time there is also a quality check to make sure all of the yarns are uniform and of good quality.
Cones are then sent to the warping mill. At the warping mill, the yarns are wound onto loom beams, and these beams will eventually become the warp of the fabric.
The beams are then sent to the weaving mill, where they are placed on a loom. And the weaving process can begin by inserting the weft or fill yarns.
The weave construction of the fabric is totally customizable and can be made to whatever specific requirements a customer needs.
When the weaving process is done, you are left with a greige fabric. To be used, a greige fabric usually needs to be processed.
Traditionally textile finishing is one of the least eco-friendly processes in the fabric supply chain. That is because fabrics are often treated with a cocktail of (sometimes carcinogenic) chemicals to do everything from making them feel softer, to preventing mold during the shipping process.
But, with Manteco, there are no chemical processes. Only mechanical.
During these final finishing stages, the final look of the fabric can be altered. There are pile effects, shaggy looks, brushed fabrics, beaver fabrics, etc, even boiled wool.
It is all customizable depending on what the customer wants.
Only The Best Quality
The last step is a quality check. After the fabric is inspected internally, a small cutting is sent to the customer for approval. If everything looks good, then it is shipped to the customer to be made into apparel.
Did you know that there is waste across all of the wool supply chain? At every step I just described above, we lose some of the fibers. Normally those fibers would end up in the trash.
But, not with Manteco.
Instead, Manteco works with a company that helps them to recover what would have been lost fibers during production processes. And those waste fibers are then upcycled into recycled wool yarns.
This recovered wool fiber waste from the supply chain is no small amount. Up to 10% of all the raw materials processed are re-recovered and used in the yarns instead of being thrown away! T
The process is estimated to save over 200k kg of wool fibers every year. That is seriously a lot of sweaters that can be made just from factory waste!
A Few Sustainable Bonuses
“Our headquarters and all our warehouses are completely powered by solar panels, thus allowing us to be fully self-sufficient in terms of electricity.”
“Water purification is the process of removing chemicals, biological contaminants, suspended solids, and gases from wastewater, in order for it to be reused.
GIDA SPA was created in 1981 and manages wastewater treatment plants for the industrial aqueduct network of Manteco System. Through the research and the application of innovative solutions and energy efficiency, the water used in our textile production processes is properly treated, and put back into the industrial system in the most environmentally responsible way.”
“We know that packaging has a big impact on the planet, so when we ship our fabrics, we carefully protect them with packaging made with recycled plastic. When samples are shipped they are shipped in pouchettes that are made from upcycled high-end fabrics. And, lastly, the company uses QR codes to fabric information instead of paper printouts.”
Being A Textile Sleuth, I Had A Few Questions About Their Recycled Wool…
With the second-hand and clothing resale markets booming, is there a shortage of garments to upcycle?
“No. Even though recycling and also second-hand shopping is becoming more popular there is still no shortage of raw materials.”
Now, my two cents is, this kind of had me feeling conflicted. I wanted to be like yay, so happy for you that you can keep doing this amazing process. But, I was also like, wow, just how much waste do we produce as a planet that it seems like there is a never-ending supply of second-hand materials?
You gave me a ton of info about woven fabrics, is there any chance you do knits too?
“Yes. We make knits like jersey fabric also.”
Ok, this all sounds amazing, and I know a ton of small brands that would love to start using recycled wool in their lines. Any chance you are open to low MOQ orders?
“Yes. We hold stock inventory this way small brands can buy small MOQs. We have a big stock fabrics warehouse where we keep all the qualities that are ready for immediate sampling. These fabrics are perfect for young designers and small brands to use.
And, we have another warehouse that is just for schools and universities. The Monteco Academy gives webinars and organizes factory visits for field trips and is very involved in education. We even have a special warehouse for only students that has more than 1500 types of fabrics.”
I have to ask. Because I know it’s going to be on all my clients’ minds… Is recycled wool lower quality than virgin wool products?
“When you shred the garments the fibers will be a little shorter, and shorter fibers are considered lower quality.
This is a fact, and there is just no way around this.
But if you invest in technology and doing studies on how to make the process as least destructive as possible then you can still get a high-quality fabric. That is why the way we shred the garments is a secret. Through the decades we have also been able to improve the spinning and finishing process. With all of the improvements through the supply chain, we are at the point where we can create recycled wool fabrics that are as beautiful as virgin ones.
It’s important to remember that the length of the recycled fibers is also dependent on the fibers that we put into the system. So the longer and higher quality fibers that go in, the better quality fabric we are able to make with them.”
There is a fine line between upcycling and downcycling. What are you doing?
“We are upcycling. Taking waste and making it into something great. A luxury quality textile. Our goal is to try and make recycled wool and other recycled fabrics as beautiful as virgin material fabrics.
With downcycling companies are making that waste into things like nonwoven fabrics (felt), stuffing, padding, insulation, etc.”
Last question. What is one misconception about recycled wool that you would like to set straight?
Most people think that colors are limited. But, we have gotten so good at creating colors we can even match to Pantones!
What do you think?
Leave me your comments below.
And, small startup brands, if you are interested in giving new life to textiles waste, and incorporating recycled wool or other fibers for your garments or accessories? Well then, definitely take a look at Manteco’s product range of available stock fabrics that are ready for you to use immediately with low MOQs!