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Made for the Great Outdoors

5 minute read

For more than 500 years Austria’s mountain farmers fashioned outdoor clothing from homemade felted, or milled, wool. Although warm and serviceable in harsh alpine conditions, the stiff, drab garments were hardly aesthetically pleasing — and not particularly comfortable. Now, thanks largely to modern production techniques, all that has changed. Soft felted wool in a palette of gorgeous colors is worn on city streets by the chic and the trendy. Adored by French and Italian fashion designers, it is seen on catwalks in Paris, Milan and New York. For those living in the mountains, it remains as de rigueur as an Englishman’s Burberry.

At its headquarters in Brixlegg in the Austrian province of Tyrol, the family-owned company Giesswein (www.giesswein.com) has been producing Walk (the German word for felted knitwear) since 1954. Money was painfully short when Elisabeth and Walter Giesswein started their home-based business. Elisabeth knitted sweaters by hand and felted them in the family washing machine, while Walter hawked the products around the region in a suitcase strapped to his bicycle. The couple’s determination and stamina paid off. “When I was born in 1952 my parents had nothing; not even enough money to buy diapers,” says their son Hannes, who now heads the company. “Today we are the world leader in Walk production. That makes me feel very proud.”

That pride is based on a turnover of $40 million a year and a name synonymous with tradition and style. The core market for Giesswein products is Austria, Germany and Italy’s South Tyrol. But there has been an explosion of interest worldwide in recent years, and the company now has offices in France, Italy, Spain and the U.S. Exports hover at around 85% of revenues, with the U.S. accounting for 9%, a figure Hannes aims to double in the next three years.

The Giessweins installed their first industrial-size milling machine in 1958 and expanded their product line to include jackets, called Walk Janker. At the time it was an innovative move and they were unsure of the market, but by the early 1960s the “Davos,” a chunky, collarless, button-through jacket in mottled white and gray, was the must-have item in alpine resorts across Europe.

Further diversification followed in 1974 when Giesswein started production of its famous slippers. Cosy, sock-like bootees made of densely felted wool in an array of colors and patterns, they offered comfort and practicality in a market saturated with flimsy creations of man-made fiber. Today, although widely copied, Giesswein’s original slippers dominate sales, the 1 million pieces produced each year accounting for more than 30% of revenues.
In the old days mountain farmers used wool from their own sheep to make oversized garments, which were then washed in warm water and trodden, or beaten with wooden hammers, to shrink the fabric and produce the typically thick, compact quality of felted wool. Knitted wool produced Walk, woven wool became Loden. Some communities established their own felting plants, such as that in mountainous Ramsau am Dachstein in the province of Styria, which has been producing Loden for more than 500 years. When treated, the finished garments are able to absorb up to 60% moisture without feeling wet and so remain warm and insulating in both rain and snow.

For Giesswein and its 300 employees, the spectacular mountain scenery surrounding Brixlegg is a constant reminder of those ancient traditions. But like his parents, Hannes Giesswein believes the company has to be forward-looking if it wants to remain successful: “We can’t stand still. We are always working on new products to give the market a fresh impulse.” Giesswein now produces new fabrics so luxurious they can be worn next to the skin while retaining all of the advantages of the traditional product. Although only sheep’s wool can be successfully felted, the firm is experimenting with combinations of natural fibers: wool with linen, cotton or viscose. Different thicknesses and finishes mean that Walk can also be worn in summer. In fact, its natural insulating properties can keep the wearer cool when temperatures begin to rise.

Austrians have always known that Walk was hard-wearing and practical, but over the last decade the style-conscious have discovered that it looks pretty cool too. Because the company no longer follows the original method of shrinking finished garments, preferring to produce the fabric first and then cut and sew it, Walk has been used by international designers to stunning effect — such as the luminous orange and neon yellow felted fabrics produced for French designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac.

Production at the Giesswein factory goes on day and night, six days a week in the high season. In 24 hours the flatbed and circular machines can knit up to 5,000 m of fabric, which then go to the Walkerei, or felting department, to be milled. There, in giant cylindrical machines, all computerized, at a water temperature of 30° C, it is shrunk and processed until the wool fibers interweave and the desired grade of thickness is achieved. But even in this high-tech environment the expertise of Giesswein’s experienced staff is essential. During the milling process operators stop the machines to test the fabric by hand, the only foolproof way to ensure the perfection of the final product. No chemicals are used, and the company has its own recycling plant so that the thousands of liters of water needed each day may be reused up to seven times before being returned, clean, into the ecosystem.

Walk has always been a fabric best suited to the active, outdoor life, and it is not unusual to spot a 20-year-old Giesswein jacket on a hiker in the mountains. But the transition to international classic is well underway. It could be just a matter of time before the Walk Janker is as familiar in Paris, Moscow or New York as it is in its Austrian homeland.

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