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Tracing the Cashmere Trail

A paradise of pine-clad vales and gemlike lakes, sleepy Valsesia could not be more removed in spirit from nearby trendsetting Milan. Only the sound of sports cars bearing fashion mavens to and from the big city, and an occasional whiff of wet wool on the breeze, suggest a closer link. Valsesia, Italy's cashmere country, is to Milanese fashion what Bordeaux country is to wine. For generations, textile mills hidden in the region's Alpine valleys have produced some of the world's finest woolens, including the most luscious of cashmeres. Buyers for Gucci, Hermès, and Chanel make pilgrimages here to purchase fabrics and yarns for their collections. American designer Rebecca Moses went one step further: in search of the perfect cashmere for her 1991 collection, she met and married mill owner and Valsesia native Giacomo Festa Bianchet. It was only a matter of time before she shut her New York studio and relocated to this northern backwater.

"When I told my friends I was leaving New York for the quiet hills of Valsesia, they thought I was out of my mind!" Moses says with a giggle. But one visit to her new Milan showroom and you'll be convinced that madness played no part in her decision. From the delicately sheer scarves to the textured cardigans to the thick felt coats, everything you touch is seriously gorgeous. "Cashmere is the purest, most luxurious fiber of the century," says Moses. "Wool, silk, and cotton simply don't compare. If cashmere is used in the right way it can be worn year-round. Light in summer and layered in winter. It never feels heavy like wool; it's always soft and sensuous against the skin. I don't know anyone who dislikes cashmere."

Who does?And if you're like most people, you wouldn't be averse to padding out your wardrobe with a few bargains. It's not as hard as it might seem. The towns around Moses's adopted mountain village of Quarona, just 90 minutes northwest of Milan, offer serious value for the cashmere lover. "I like to say I live in Fabric Land. I tell my friends that if they come to visit we can shop. They can't believe there's anything up here. Then I take them to a spaccio, and they're amazed by the incredible pieces to be found."

The spacci, or factory outlets, are a shopper's dream. It's possible to buy cashmere blankets, shawls, scarves, sweaters, fabrics, and more, at significant discounts (20 to 50 percent). As at all outlets, what's available depends on what the factory has produced that season and which pieces need to be shifted. You just might have the luck to stumble across a slightly imperfect cashmere blanket or coat sold only at the outlet. The two best spacci for cashmere— Agnona and Loro Piana— are right near Moses's house. Agnona's outlet, in the town of Borgosesia, is on the grounds of the factory itself, on a hill overlooking the Sesia River. The mill exudes the faint, pleasant scent of damp wool, but the order book, which reads like a Who's Who of fashion, promises something more glamorous. Combining space-age technology with generations of know-how, Agnona converts the highest grade raw cashmere available— big, fluffy bales of goat hair from Inner Mongolia— into a dazzling array of fabrics. Moses herself is a fan and customer: "This is probably one of the best fabric factories in the world. We work together very closely to develop materials I can design with. Agnona was founded in the fifties and has an incredible archive of fabrics— alpaca, cashmere, double-face wools— created specially for houses like Balmain and Chanel. You can study them and try to build on the qualities of these marvelous old designs." Or if you're less ambitious and would rather rely on someone else's imaginative flights, you might hunt through the store for a delicious king-size blanket made of pure cashmere (about $1,000) or a plaid throw of cashmere, alpaca, and wool (under $100). The Agnona factory also produces ready-to-wear coats, sweaters, jackets, skirts, and, most important, fabrics. "Recently, a friend came for a visit and bought yards and yards of cashmere fabric. She had a tailor at home make it into suits for her husband," says Moses.

Deep in the valley, whose walls are green with meadows and ringed with vineyards, is Quarona, where Moses settled with her husband in a sprawling, fifties-style house. When asked whether this at once lush and imposing landscape might have inspired the fuchsias, greens, and purples of her collections, she acknowledges that "my colors are inspired by everything around me. I love flowers and gardens. We have a lot of hydrangeas, wisteria, red and pink roses, geraniums, rhododendrons, azaleas. We have big Scotch pines and a large American maple tree whose leaves probably change color twenty times over the course of a year."

QUARONA IS ALSO HOME TO THE spaccio of Loro Piana, a factory specializing in pure cashmeres and Tasmanian wool. "I buy a lot of cashmere yarns from them," says Moses. "The family has been dealing in fine fabrics and yarns since 1812. The Tasmanian wool they produce is a superfine, worsted men's-wear fabric. Almost every chic man in Europe has suits and pants made out of it." While the Agnona spaccio feels very much like an extension of the factory, the one at Loro Piana has all the sleek appeal of a SoHo boutique. Much larger, it presents a wide range of cashmere products— soft dressing gowns, thickly knit, cabled cardigans more like coats than sweaters— in a modern interior.

How do you check for quality?"A good cashmere sweater should be soft to the touch, but not so soft that it pills, which means it has been washed too often. I'm from the school that believes cashmere doesn't have to be heavy to be warm, so I use a lot of one- and two-ply cashmere in my designs."

It may come as a surprise to learn that your grandmother's stubborn belief that nothing less than four-ply cashmere would do was just another one of those myths brought over from the old country. The quality of a cashmere fiber is determined first by what part of the goat it comes from. A goat's hair is long and coarse, but the underhair, which grows beneath the outer coat, is very soft. The most prized hairs come from the goat's chin, reserved for the priciest cashmere, such as that produced in the Kashmir region of northern India. Almost as rare are the hairs from the chest. The belly hair is good, too, and is found in most high-quality cashmere products. Hair from the flank is used for lesser blends, and the back fleece is the least desirable because it is exposed to the elements. But it's what happens to the cashmere as it is made into yarn, washed, and dyed that can make or break your sweater. "Sometimes a really good factory can make a bad yarn look good," explains Moses. "Quality has nothing to do with the number of ends— it's the spinning, dying, knitting, and finishing that matters most." At Lora & Festa, for example, Moses's husband's factory which specializes in yarns, there are more than 50,000 colors on file— 50 different kinds of black alone. It is not unusual for a fashion designer to bring in a tiny piece of something, a vinyl tablecloth, a leaf, an 18th-century tile, and say, "This is the color I want!"

IF YOU'RE AFTER CELESTIAL HUES, following the trail from spaccio to spaccio will take you as close to heaven as you've ever been. Varallo, a hamlet near Quarona, is celebrated for something almost as divine as cashmere: Sacro Monte, one of Italy's most venerated and mystical shrines. Sacro Monte is actually an entire village of about 30 tiny chapels inhabited by striking, life-size Renaissance sculptures. "It's quite impressive," says Moses. "The pope came years ago, and a lot of people go there on pilgrimages." For pleasures of the more earthly sort, head to Lake Orta, just west of the larger and more famous Lake Maggiore, a longtime summer retreat for chic Milanese. "Lake Orta is a little jewel," says Moses. "Few people— even Italians— know about it, which makes it all the more special." Many visitors have shared her admiration. Balzac reveled in Lake Orta's "poetic and melodious fascination," and it was at this landscape of sheer mountain faces that Nietzsche gazed when he composed his ode to the Übermensch, Thus Spake Zarathustra.

On the lake's lush western shores lies Orta San Giulio, where palms, azaleas, and oleanders burst incongruously from the snowy backdrop of the Italian Alps. Follow Orta's narrow, cobbled streets past Baroque palaces and you'll inevitably end up at the main square, Piazza Mario Motta, known locally as Il Salotto ("the drawing room"). And no wonder— about the only thing that seems to go on here is sipping Campari and watching sleek Rivas shuttle visitors back and forth to the island of San Giulio in the lake's center. "My husband and I usually go to Orta in June. Alberto Ilorini, owner of the Agnona factory and a dear friend, comes with us. He and Giacomo spend most of their time waterskiing on the lake."

For those without a house a half-hour's drive from Lake Orta, the Villa Crespi, built in 1880 by industrialist Benigno Crespi, offers a sumptuous retreat to Moorish living, Italian style. Each of the hotel's 14 rooms is elaborately decorated: four-poster beds, crystal chandeliers, and marble bathrooms, some with "matrimonial" Jacuzzis. Drape a cashmere shawl around your shoulders and take an evening stroll in the spectacular gardens.

THE LAST STOP ON THE "CASHMERE TRAIL" is the drab industrial town of Biella, 10 miles southwest of Valsesia. It's a big step down geographically and aesthetically, but what it lacks in Sound of Music appeal it more than makes up for in fabulous wools and prêt-À-porter. On the outskirts of the city, top-drawer houses like Ermenegildo Zegna Bolgheri, Guabello, and Lanificio Cerruti each have mouthwatering spacci. Even those with every right to plead "no more woolens" are impressed. "I don't shop too much," says Moses, "but when I do, I go shopping in Biella." Here you can find everything from beautifully knitted sweaters to cashmere throws, from men's suits to the Nino Cerruti line for women. Walk softly and carry a big, empty suitcase.

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