Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park
The Cerro Buenos Aires estancia, Santa Cruz Province.
a worthier wool
Velvety fleeces and silky feathers hold the secrets of a kind winter. A journey to the heart of the warmest materials, from Organica’s Patagonia to Pyrenex’s rural Landes.
El Calafate: a small Patagonian town in the province of Santa Cruz, made up of a scattering of wood and corrugated iron houses, 2,635 kilometers from Buenos Aires. Latitude: 50°20’26’’ south. Longitude: 72°16’36’’ west. In other words, the end of the world. From the plane’s window, you see a dry landscape dotted with lakes and snaking waterways glinting in the sun, a flat land out of which soar the fleecy white peaks of the Andes. Through the windshield of the pick-up driving down Ruta 40, a trench that slices north to south through Argentina, the view stretches out across a steppe buffeted by strong winds, an arid landscape where only the hardiest animals survive, those whose teeth are strong enough to chew the sharp-edged coirón grass, the spiny pads of the mata negra, the fescue grass and the tough leaves of the calafate shrubs. Here, hares with their animated, pointed ears run faster than Usain Bolt, and seem destined to spend their lives scampering through the thorny bushes. Here, cows graze on scattered patches of lush grass in the glacial valleys, seemingly destined to spend their lives chewing beneath a big sky as hard as crystal. And here, above all, is the realm of merino sheep with their crimped fleecesoft-toy look-alikes from the Falkland Islands that proliferated after being imported into Patagonia in the 19th centurywhile the human inhabitants, fearful of the hostile climate, take the measure each day of their immense solitude.
A mark of quality
Don’t be fooled by the clumsy gait of these sturdy ruminants, for they are the kings of the pampa; despite the oil and gas reserves in Patagonia, they represent the true wealth of these southern regions. A thousand breeders all over the steppe devote their lives to these guileless herbivores and their fleece, which after processing produces one of the world’s finest and most highly prized wools. Chargeurs Luxury Materials has been purchasing the famous coats of these Patagonian merino sheep (along with those from Uruguay, New Zealand, Tasmania, Australia, South Africa and the United States) for decades, processing them in combing factories and selling the wool to spinning mills. The leader in premium merino wool, this industrial group had, up until now, no other aim than to produce the world’s best combed fibers, while adopting a responsible approach to the environment and the animals, as well as the people who take care of them. But times have changed, and the market for merino wool has been hit hard by low-end products from some of their competitors, spurring the group to show its true colors by launching an eco-friendly label called Organica. The logic is simple but irrefutable: it’s not enough to produce beautiful, healthy wool; it’s important to promote it, in a world where increasingly savvy consumers require traceability. Younger generations, who pay attention to the quality of their food, have a legitimate right to demand the same transparency of the textile industry. Organica is a first in the fashion sector, so it was well worth making the trip to check out this label, which will soon be sewn onto our scarves, sweaters and suits.
We traveled halfway around the planet to get a closer view of these fluffy sheep that drink the pure waters of the Andes and live alongside one of the world’s most beautiful glaciers, the Perito Moreno, whose 60-meter-high front looks like the Wall in Game of Thrones. We drove for kilometer upon kilometer over gray terrain to track down these animals whose dusty fleeces blend into the landscape. We watched shaggy dogs herd these stocky free-roaming mammals back to the fold, one by one. We saw the firm grip of the gauchos as they held these 50-kilo creatures and relieved them of 4.5 kilos of wool, as if they’d been following a miracle diet. We visited the combing plants, noting that merino was not mixed with other wools and that the waste water from the machines was indeed recycled. We smelled the wool’s strong odor and, feeling like experts, at least for the space of this antipodean story, we became unwittingly drawn into that vast, rugged land, that kingdom without borders worthy of a Jim Harrison saga or a Rick Bass short story, with its immense mornings illuminated by the distant light of snow-capped peaks. The story of merino wool started to seem like an epic one, and at nightfall, in the suffocating silence of the estancia, clouds rolled into our dreams in the shape of sheep.