An excellent yarn

New Zealand might have missed out on lakes of oil or mountains of diamonds, but there’s one natural resource we have by the bale load. Wool is one of the world’s oldest textiles as well as one of the most sustainable. Deirdre Coleman investigates the comeback of this golden fleece

We always knew it was autumn when our grandmother brought out the latest knitting catalogues and had us each choose a jumper pattern. Then she’d lovingly handcraft a garment that kept us snug all winter – if a little itchy around the neck.

As Kiwis, we’ve grown up with wool: from the carpets we rolled on as babies to crocheted toys, toilet-roll covers, Swanndri bush shirts and the classic black farmers’ singlets our uncles wore. Wool is an iconic fibre that weaves through our lives and its story is a remarkable one.

Cool wool

Wool is the original smart fibre. Its hollow, hygroscopic fibres readily absorb and release moisture, making it perfect for clothing. Because it can absorb a third of its own weight in moisture, wool draws perspiration away from the skin and disperses it through evaporation, providing natural comfort for the wearer. Its high water and nitrogen content also means it is non-flammable and self-extinguishing. Plus, wool doesn’t melt, drip or stick to the skin when it burns, making it an ideal fabric for interior furnishings, protective apparel and uniforms.

Wool is easier to spin and dye than vegetable fibres like flax and cotton, as well as being warmer. It has excellent sound reduction and insulation qualities, plus it’s extremely durable – wool fibres can be bent 20,000 times before breaking. Unlike synthetic alternatives, wool doesn’t contain dangerous chemicals, or harbour dust, pests or mould that can cause allergic reactions. It doesn’t irritate the eyes, skin or lungs. In fact, wool absorbs toxic chemicals from surrounding materials and limits airborne dust, keeping living environments clean. It can also provide excellent UV protection.

But wool is not just kind to us, it’s also planet-friendly: 100 percent biodegradable, recyclable and energy efficient. Producing it uses a fraction of the energy required to manufacture synthetic substitutes and with much lower CO2 emissions. Transportable in a high-density form, wool arrives at its destination with a relatively small carbon footprint. Wool’s resilience was demonstrated when a piece of 3,500-year-old wool textile was found preserved in Danish marshland.

We know that wool can be used to make top-quality clothing, carpets and blankets. But that’s not all this wonder fibre can do. Increasingly, wool is being put to work in surprising new ways in the fields of medicine, architecture, aviation and manufacturing.

Wool that is too coarse for textiles is used as high-quality home insulation – safe and easy to install, its natural pest, fire and mould resistance makes it an eco-friendly and effective alternative to fibreglass. Said to be able to soak up 40 times its weight in oil, New Zealand wool waste has been used to clean up oil spills during the 1991 Gulf War and the 2010 BP Gulf of Mexico disaster. Because it traps the oil rather than absorbing it, the oil can be easily removed from the wool and recycled. And being biodegradable, the wool can then be reused, composted or safely sent to a landfill.

Woolspill, another New Zealand product used to filter out contaminants, can also help reduce levels of heavy metals in streams. And added to clay and combined with a polymer extracted from seaweed, wool is helping make stronger, more environmentally friendly bricks that can be manufactured without firing.

In the medical area, wool products are helping prevent pressure sores, and New Zealand is pioneering the development of special wool-protein-based foams and skin patches that speed up healing and tissue growth. Across the ditch, scientists have also created an electrostatically charged wool filter for use in air-conditioning systems and personal respirators.

Wool is truly amazing – but sharing the country as we do with millions of woolly four-legged critters, we could be forgiven for taken them a little for granted. A case, perhaps, of not seeing the wool for the sheep?

Where did ewe all come from?

We all know wool comes from sheep. But our ancestors first hunted sheep for their meat rather than their wool, which was once short, thick and brittle, making it unsuitable for spinning. Despite domesticating sheep about 12,000 years ago, we took somewhat longer to begin breeding them to produce quality wool. While the art of spinning wool developed around 5000 BC, shears came onto the scene later so initially wool had to be plucked by hand. The Romans established the first wool factory in England in 50 AD, and wool production and trade soon became a vital part of the economies of Europe and Britain.

Fast forward to 18th-century New Zealand and we have Captain James Cook to thank for introducing the first sheep to our shores in 1773 and kicking off what would become one of our country’s most important export industries.

Greener pastures

Since the early 1900s, New Zealand’s wool fortunes have waxed and waned. The 1951 Wool Boom saw prices triple overnight as a result of the Korean War. Record numbers of Kiwi sheep farms sprang up as a result. In 1966 the industry floundered and wool’s export price crashed by 40 percent. Things improved with the development of wool that could be machine-washed without shrinking. By the early 80s, when the New Zealand flock peaked at 70 million, we were famous for having 20 sheep for every person.

But then droughts and the rise in the popularity of synthetic fabrics pushed wool out into the cold again. Between 1990 and 2005, New Zealand’s wool production dropped by 32 percent and our national flock halved compared with the 1980s.

The good news, though, is that these days sustainable, eco-friendly materials such as wool are coming to the fore once again, and New Zealand is helping lead the charge. China, India and Western Europe now want more of our golden fleeces and prices are on the rise both here and globally. According to the NZ Council of Wool Exporters, they’ve hit 20-year highs and are likely to pump another $250 million into our rural economy over the next year.

The resurgence in wool’s popularity coincides with local and international initiatives to make wool cool. The United Nations declared 2009 the International Year of Natural Fibres, in an effort to raise awareness about natural materials such as wool. And the high-profile five-year Campaign for Wool, championed by Prince Charles to promote the benefits and beauty of wool, was launched last year in the UK.

The quick guide to wool

New Zealand is the largest producer of cross-bred wool, contributing 25 percent of the global total. It’s used for interior textiles (carpet, rugs, furnishings, bedding) and for knitting yarn and blankets. The Romney (top left) is an example of a breed farmed for both its meat and its strong cross-bred wool.

Developed by Dr Francis Dry in the 1940s, the Drysdale was carefully bred from Romneys with the longest, straightest, coarsest fleece. Drysdale wool is ‘hairy’, providing excellent bounce and resilience for carpets. The sheep are shorn twice a year, their heavy fleeces fetching a premium.

Two decades later, Sir Geoffrey Peren crossed the Cheviot and Romney to create the hardy, dual-purpose Perendale. Its fine, white wool is excellent for knitting, as the natural spring helps garments hold their shape.

Thought to originate in Spain or North Africa, the merino is the world’s most numerous sheep breed and New Zealand’s first. They are farmed mainly in the South Island hill country, and their soft, fine, close-crimped wool is used for textiles, including designer fashion and even billiard table cloths. With about 50 million fibres, a merino fleece is three times denser than that of other breeds. Our best-known merino, the ‘hermit’ sheep Shrek, managed to avoid muster for six years. His 27kg fleece was six times the weight of the average merino’s.

Flocking to our wool

While New Zealand supports the Campaign for Wool, we’re also setting up our own initiatives to sell Kiwi wool to the world. Marketing it as superior is an important step in improving the price and demand for our wool, according to Theresa Gattung, Chair of Wool Partners International. Her goal is to reinvigorate New Zealand’s wool industry and transform wool’s image from commodity to luxury fibre.

New Zealand is the world’s largest exporter of cross-bred wool, with more than 80 percent being used in carpets. In 2009, Elders Primary Wool created the Just Shorn brand in order to market luxury New Zealand wool rugs and carpets to the US. Another new brand, Laneve, from Wools of New Zealand, is promoting our wool as clean and green, promising carpets and rugs made from wool that is traceable back to farmers who meet high environmental, social responsibility and animal welfare standards.

At a grassroots level, Kiwi companies are helping shine the spotlight on our wool. Wellington textile designers The Formary have created an innovative and sustainable fabric by mixing New Zealand wool with jute recycled from Starbucks’ coffee sacks. Called WoJo, this clever eco-friendly fabric was unveiled at UK Wool Week last year. Over the next five years it will be used to upholster seating in Starbucks’ 8,000 coffee houses outside the US.

Wool has also had a revival among crafters, both in new and recycled forms. One example is Kiwi Mel Clark who, to share her love of wool and promote the creative and therapeutic value of knitting, has designed New Zealand-inspired handknits for Hollywood films and boutiques across the US. In 2000 she opened her Santa Monica shop, Wildfiber, selling yarns, teaching knitting classes, plus authoring and contributing to a raft of gorgeous knitting books, including one that she co-wrote with TV comedian Tracey Ullman. Now back in Auckland, Clark has set up an online store called South Seas Knitting.

New spin on an old fibre

The supermodel of New Zealand wool, merino has become synonymous with some luxury Kiwi brands. Among them is the parent company of Untouched World, Snowy Peak Ltd, founded by Peri Drysdale. Now a multimillion-dollar export company, its innovative products and clever product placement have done their bit to enhance New Zealand’s reputation as a producer of the planet’s best merino wool.

The company is the first fashion and sportswear company in the world to receive UNESCO permission to carry the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development logo on its Untouched World labels. Snowy Peak is also credited with developing the merino-possum industry. “We developed the first wool-possum garment in 1992,” says Peri. “Four years later we came to the market with Merinomink knitwear and just couldn’t keep up with demand. It’s been a real success story and we’ve had incredible feedback. Possum fur is a soft natural fibre but it’s also very hard-wearing, which makes it unique. It’s great to be able to look a customer in the eye in any part of the world and say, ‘There’s nothing better than this’.”

Untouched World is now also using the clip from Lammermoor Station, which is considered one of the top five merino studs in the world. Lammermoor is a certified organic merino station – there aren’t many in New Zealand. “They’re fantastic farmers and their wool has a real sheen to it.”

For its part, another Kiwi company Merino Kids, founded in 2003 by Amie Nilsson, has won three prestigious iF International Product Design awards for its innovative merino baby and toddler products. All are made from 100 percent natural merino, which Nilsson calls a wonder fibre because it regulates a baby’s body temperature and improves sleep routines. Merino Kids created the world’s first merino baby sleep bag, the Go Go Sleep Bag, at a time when the market was dominated by synthetic options.

Merino were the first sheep breed brought to New Zealand in large numbers. This hardy breed is now found mostly in the rugged South Island hill country, where they thrive on high-altitude native grasses. Merino wool is fine and soft, with close wrinkles or ‘crimps’.

Their fleece is nearly three times as dense as other breeds, with a much higher warmthto- weight ratio, helping them survive the cold and ensuring their wool is ideal for use in thermal garments

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