For those of you who work in the industry, there’s a color that is universally recognised as the signature shade of the industrial denim laundry. I have visited many wash facilities over the years in Italy, the USA, China, Turkey, Pakistan, Vietnam, Japan and Bangladesh. Every facility I step into I expect to see the color turquoise and so far I have never been disappointed, because the shade of the Tonello machine is literally all over the world. I guess there’s something really fun about seeing anything supersized, and glimpsing a giant Tonello washing machine just brightens my day without fail. I have taken more photos than I can remember and yes I have certainly posed them on my feed more than once over the years!

The infamous Tonello turquoise machine of today
A old archival photo of an early G1330, still in the signiture turquiose

Many denimheads reading this article will have very strong opinions about denim laundry and the impact it has had and continues to have on our environment (This is a topic we will be tackling in our next think piece on the blog). When the idea of denim laundry was first dreamed up in the 70’s it was a revolution. But even those revolutionaries now humbly admit they accidentally unleashed a monster; a monster that has exploded the wash industry into what it is today.

Taking a raw jean and making it look like it has been worn for years is a concept that has divided many denimheads. But the fact of the matter is, washed denim is insanely popular, and finding new ways to deliver these looks without harming the environment has to be at the forefront of our industry’s exploration if we are to turn things around. In this article I am going to be diving deep into the turquoise history of Tonello, finding out how this Italian company started up and how they see the future of their industry evolving for the better.

And I can’t talk about the future without speaking with Alice Tonello, Head of R+D at Tonello. Alice is a couple of years younger than I am and heads up all the creativity and innovation at the company, which was originally founded by her uncle in 1981. Her father, Flavio has been CEO of the company for over 15 years and together they manage Tonello and all strategic decisions, so it’s a real family business.

A driven and passionate Italian laundry geek, Alice is enthusiastic about her role within the supply chain and the need to drive towards more sustainable laundry solutions, and her uncle, Osvaldo, shared that same values all the way back in the 70’s. He started his career in plant maintenance and gradually became a huge part of the Italian denim revolution, where fitted silhouettes, stretch denim and stonewashed jeans became the must-have looks of the era. At first Osvaldo was modifying machines in the field, perfecting, optimising and making them ‘his’ until this gradual, accidental evolution led to his eureka moment in 1980, when he built and sold his first dying machine called the RC 60-120. It was a higher performance machine than anything currently available and creating it required a radical change in mentality, but Osvaldo had that mindset: he saw things from the view of the factories, manufacturers and fabric users.

Tonello in the early years

Shortly after this came his invention of the SW series of cylindrical machines. These machines were adopted by some of the major industrial laundries in Italy and suddenly demand hit so rapidly that they were built partly in the workshop and partly at facilities, as no official production has been established. What’s interesting about Tonello’s rise is the fact that Osvaldo didn’t set out to invent and manufacture machines. He was on the ground, working with factories and making modifications, he was literally creating a new breed of machine on the factory floor, solving problems and creating solutions that turned into ideas, new machines and eventually a thriving business.

During the 1980’s, Tonello introduced the first prototypes of what we now see in laundries all over the world: the SW 450 and SW 500; front-opening, giant roll-over machines. These can be filled with pumice stones to stonewash, used for bulk washing, marbling or all kinds of processes. Its arguably from this point that the industry and world of denim really altered forever.

An early photo of a row of Tonellos at the plant in Italy

Fast-forward to the year 2000 and the denim world has fully embraced a scary array of processing. From localized potassium permanganate to hand-scraping and whiskering, to sand blasting (now thankfully banned) to resin baked 3D effects. Thousands of chemicals are being used, millions of gallons of water are being wasted and nothing is regulated, nothing is safe. The result? Factory workers start getting sick, rivers start running blue, denim is now recognised as a dirty business. And where was Osvaldo Tonello in all of this? Well, predictably he was already looking another 10 years into the future with a bunch of Kodak engineers in the USA. The first laser was born.

It was in the early 2000’s that I personally first saw a laser at work in a denim factory. Back then, a very slow process but absolutely mesmerising to watch. In those days the laser was used as more of a gimmick; to create flower motifs or small, localised designs by burning away the indigo. But Osvaldo saw way more potential. After working on this first generation of technology, he expanded and invested, taking the simple idea and scaling it to the sophisticated machines we see today; obtaining stonewash effects, whisker patterns, fades and even damage.

To turn your attention away from the very machines that put food on the table and money in the bank must’ve been a pretty tough step to take, I question Alice. Especially when, at this moment in time, nobody was asking for it. Nobody was talking about sustainability, about water consumption and chemical use. Only a very small handful of brands or manufacturers and almost no consumers had any clue or care.

“It was challenging for sure because it has meant, from some points of view, competing with ourselves. We became famous with stone washing machines at the beginning of the 80s. But if you think of all the disadvantages that the use of pumice stone can cause, for us it was a natural (and conscious) challenge”

Today’s Laser

Around this time Tonello opened an R+D center, the first of its kind recognised by the Ministry of Universities and Scientific Technological Research. Here they started work on some of the many technologies we see making changes to the wash house today. Its by embracing technology that the company have maintained their position at the forefront of denim laundry, Alice tells me:

“Technology helps to make every process more sustainable, safer, cleaner and less polluting. It helps to create new and better work figures with more focus on control, programming and design roles, leaving the executive work and all its associated risks and dangers to the machine”

Saving energy, increasing human safety, reducing water and chemicals and creating a more efficient process are at the heart of the new inventions entering our denim market since the early 2010’s. I spoke to Alice to get a glimpse into a timeline of the last decade of Tonello machines and what they do in layman terms as we approach 2020.

Timeline of Tonello Machines in chronological order
  • 2010: Ofree: this system was invented to bleach garments using ozone suspended in the air of the machine. The presence of Ozone serves to break down the indigo molecular in the garment, avoiding the normal chemicals and water that’s been used up until now (aside from a small amount of water used to neutralise the ozone at the end)
  • 2013: Ecofree was their next development; using ozone in water rather than ozone in air. This means you achieve two goals in one process: you achieve a greater contrast on the seams thanks to the water and you can also clean the water without needing the end rinse required in the Ofree process.
  • 2015: NoStone® was actually invented alongside Levi’s Strauss & Co in an attempt to eradicate the use of pumice stone laundry altogether. It’s a wet processing system where the inside of the machine drum is abrasive, recreating a stone wash environment but without the use of stones.
  • 2016: UP This process has radically changed garment washing. A continuous flow of water being injected into the machine is then recovered and recirculated. Compare this to a standard washing process of 105 kg’s of denim, UP will use 1890 liters and even the most efficient traditional laundry would use 4305 liters. This also translates to reduced energy consumption and lower costs.
  • 2016: Core launched as an evolution of Tonello’s Batik technology they launched in 2004. In layman’s terms it creates a fine mist within the drum, resulting in uniform or contrasting effects on garments. Again this technology optimises and decreases water consumption and chemical use. You can use a variety of processes using Core: dyes, enzymes, permanganate alternatives, eco-softeners and resins for 3-D whiskers, and many more processes.
  • 2017: Ecofree 2: Take Ofree from 2010 (Ozone in air) and Ecofree from 2013 (Ozone in water) and combine them! It allows the advantages of both systems in one machine. In addition to this, they have introduced cold plasma generators, reducing the overall energy consumption.
  • 2018: All in one system. This is where things get really interesting. As Tonello have been working on all the above inventions, they have been constantly thinking back to their roots on the factory floor. Building machines from the ground up was always something at the core of their DNA so the act of fusing the technologies into one machine makes for the ultimate laundry solution. The idea that various elements can be added on or updated to an existing Tonello machine means that they irradiate the other modern technology downfall that companies like Apple have failed to recognise: waste. In this era, we are striving to make things more consciously and smarter but in our obsession with faster, slicker, and more efficient we are forgetting about the impact this is having on machine waste. Just think about all your old iphones, tablets and laptops.
Tonello offices today

They say the best way to predict the future is to invent it. The mentality of the Tonello family strikes me as one that has successfully transitioned into a new era of denim laundry and led where others follow. Surely that is the aim for any company in our industry: to look forwards and imagine a world that’s outside of their own comfort zone. That rule goes for brands, manufacturers and technology companies. Speaking to Alice gives me a huge amount of hope that it is truly possible to clean up the denim industry that we have dirtied over the last 40 years. But it’s the adoption of these technologies, not just the invention that needs to happen.

“We’ve been working on this for a long time and just over the last few years we’re collecting positive feedback. But I believe that if the entire industry would push in this direction, turning it into a standard, brands would be more motivated to adopt these solutions, and maybe in 10 years we could make denim truly sustainable”

Tonello offices today