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NZ innovators are leading a wool revolution – is it time to get behind them?

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Wool is natural, renewable and biodegradable so it should be a great time for the New Zealand economy. Why, then, are farmers, designers and businesses finding it so hard?

When Auckland-based textile wholesaler Roger Green is on a selling trip to the United States, he will unfurl a length of wool fabric and say to his audience, “There! I’ve already made the air in here cleaner.”

It’s a pitch that Amie and James Nilsson, who farm at Te Awanga at the base of Cape Kidnappers in Hawke’s Bay, similarly use with customers.

Amie is the founder of Merino Kids, which makes children’s clothing and sleeping bags. She and James began Hushaberry last September to produce wool carpets, rugs and wall hangings, buying mainly merino wool.

They will tell their customers that quite apart from a wool carpet simply having a nicer feel to walk on in bare feet, the synthetic floor coverings of modern houses don’t breathe. And they release volatile organic compounds. “Wool sucks those up, and it also sucks up moisture. It’s a breathing, living thing in your house,” says James.

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The science is real. John Brakenridge, chief executive of New Zealand Merino, a company that supports the production and marketing of fine wool, describes one of the tests that support the claims used by the wool industry. “They put formaldehyde in a test tube and measured it 30 minutes later and most of it was still there. Then they put wool in the test tube with the formaldehyde and in 30 minutes, 90% of the formaldehyde was gone.”

In an era of increasing concern about the origin and quality of consumer products, “breathability” is just one of the claims for wool that, in theory, should make it a popular choice for clothing, upholstery and carpets, not to mention increasingly diverse uses such as insulation, shoes and even surfboards.

Pure wool is 100% natural. It is versatile, renewable, flame resistant and completely biodegradable. It holds warmth even when wet and, as Green, the Nilssons and other exporters will tell their overseas customers, it is a healthy product that will not release toxins. Research reported last month reveals that microplastic fibres from synthetic products are now found in rivers, the deepest oceans, soils and are even raining down in supposedly pristine places such as remote Pyrenees mountaintops and the Galápagos Islands, a Unesco world heritage site. There is also concern about the potential health effects of microplastic fibres, which easily absorb toxic chemicals and can host harmful bacteria, with some scientists suggesting humans not only ingest but breathe the particles.

Wool, meanwhile, “ticks every box that we are told the discerning customer is looking for,” says Federated Farmers meat and wool chairman Miles Anderson, “so it’s a frustration to all of us in the industry that this miracle product is next to worthless and the industry is suffering.”

An economic staple

Sheep farming in New Zealand got off to an inauspicious beginning when, in 1773, Captain James Cook set ashore two sheep at Ship Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound, hoping they might breed. They did not. In his journal he wrote, “Last Night the Ewe and Ram I had with so much care and trouble brought to this place, died, we did suppose that they were poisoned by eating of some poisonous plant, thus all my fine hopes of stocking this Country with a breed of Sheep were blasted in a moment.”

Cook may have thought it an ill omen, but by the mid-19th century, sheep were well established and wool, mutton and lamb had become staples of the young country’s economy.

By the 1980s, the national flock was 75 million sheep. But, today, there are just over 27 million and most of those are reared for meat, rather than the shearing shed. In 1989, wool-export returns peaked at $1.8 billion. Last year, the figure had fallen to just $543 million.

In an era in which consumers have never been so environmentally conscious, somehow, with a few notable exceptions such as Icebreaker – now owned by VF Corporation, which also owns the US outdoor-apparel giant The North Face and the SmartWool brand – New Zealand’s wool industry has been declining. It has mostly failed to capitalise on its potential. It has gone on producing a type of coarse wool, primarily used in carpets, felts and tweeds, that consumers and manufacturers largely no longer want.

However, local champions of the fibre believe that the plunge in sheep numbers, returns to growers and export dollars can be arrested. There is a lot that first needs fixing, and the fractured industry is not in a strong position to help itself.

One of wool’s problems is that having for generations enjoyed dominance in the market for coarse fibres, it was ill-prepared when competition arrived in the form of synthetics.

Every teenager who chooses from the vast range of colourful, cheap, fast fashion, and every parent who buys kids low-cost clothes, knows that synthetics can make useful claims to consumers, too, especially to their budgets.

“Look, I’m a wool person,” says Green, of textile wholesaler Maxwellrodgers Fabrics. “I grew up with Feltex; I’ve been with wool all my life in terms of the end product.” But, he acknowledges, synthetics are cheaper and easier to process.

Green remembers in the 1970s, during the third Labour government, big promises being made about wool’s future. “[Prime Minister] Bill Rowling was going to have a [woollen] mill in every city. I remember driving down through Mosgiel – there was a big sign saying ‘Site of Bill’s Mill’. [Then] synthetics hit, the wool industry shrank and it never happened. As the wool clip withered, the support industries of the mills and scourers largely disappeared, too.”

Green operates from a warehouse, in Auckland’s trendy Ponsonby, full of fabric samples and the wool throws he sells locally and overseas. “Think of a wool carpet. You can walk into someone’s house and not know that it’s wool. You can’t Nike-brand it. You can’t even say, ‘I’ve got a wool carpet.’ People just look at it and say, ‘It’s just a carpet.’”

Suggest that the difference can be felt and he shoots back, “Yeah, but those bloody nylons are pretty fancy. It’s easier to process nylon than wool. Wool’s not easy.”

Wool quality is all about fibre diameter, which is measured in microns, or millionths of a metre. The more microns, the coarser the wool. The fine wool used by outdoor clothing makers such as Icebreaker comes from merino sheep and is 15-25 microns or thinner. Coarser wool is stronger and suitable for such uses as carpets, but earns farmers much less, perhaps as little as $3/kg, once shearing costs are taken out.

New Zealand produces too much coarse fibre, Green says. “To me, most farmers are growing the wrong sort of wool. We do upholstery fabrics and bed throws for hotels. We use a 25-micron wool and that’s $17.50/kg.”

“There are about 325 merino farms in New Zealand, but that’s it. Merino sheep don’t grow on your average New Zealand farm.” Merinos are prone to foot rot, and thrive in the high country, but account for only about 6% of the national wool clip.

On his farm in South Canterbury, Anderson is one of the 94% of farmers growing coarse wool. He raises romneys, which comprise about 40% of the total New Zealand sheep flock, and cross-breds.

Over the past 20 to 30 years, he says, wool has gone from being worth about half of most sheep farmers’ incomes, to now either a zero net cost or possibly even a loss for some by the time the costs of shearing, transporting the clip to wool stores, health treatments for sheep, rates and farm maintenance are taken into account.

“I am getting less than half the income for my wool clip that my father did 30 years ago,” Anderson says.

Intelligence needed

With about 50 million sheep gone from the economy, there has been a big switch to dairying, which has enjoyed record price peaks, and also more cropping.

“The fear is that if wool prices don’t reflect the production costs, the sheep industry will continue to shrink and that will mean more rationalisation. It’s a vicious circle,” Anderson says.

Last July, a wool summit staged by the Ministry for Primary Industries was billed as an opportunity for “farmers, brokers, scientists, fashion designers and familiar company brands” to map out a stronger future for the fibre. Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor declared, “We need to work smarter, not harder.” He said the industry had struggled since deregulation in 1997, and an unsuccessful levy referendum in 2014, and lacked “unity, a common vision and a strategic focus”.

A Wool Working Group emerged from the summit and it has identified a number of areas needing urgent attention.

One is that when New Zealand growers sell their wool, it will usually be scoured, shipped off to China, or Vietnam, or India and growers generally do not know what happens to it after that.

“For a mature industry, it’s ridiculous that we have no insight into where the wool goes or what it is turned into,” says Anderson, who is a member of the working group. That information would be helpful if it was collated, disseminated and used to make informed decisions.

Three years ago, growers were shocked when an already poor wool price was cut further as China largely withdrew from the market. There had been no market signals that this was going to happen, Anderson says. It turned out that China had been stockpiling wool as manufacturers had used more synthetics. “Again, it was poor intelligence on behalf of the wool industry here in New Zealand to not even signal that would happen.”

Another matter of urgency is much better promotion of New Zealand wool. A generation or two has grown up largely without wool, or knowing about its qualities. Once, the Woolmark was a valuable brand design, but somewhere in the recesses of wool’s consumer decline, it was sold off cheaply.

Further, there is no industry leadership group for wool as there is for kiwifruit, meat or wine. Instead, manufacturers or others are doing their own promotions, but their budgets are small and usually there is little co-operation or collaboration. Wool is often not represented at New Zealand trade delegations overseas, Anderson says, and there is often no New Zealand wool representative at international textile trade fairs.

Challenging synthetics

The Wool Working Group is looking at collaborating to tell the wool story, Anderson says, so that individual companies can leverage off that story as they promote their own product.

Green thinks the need for marketing is paramount. “The talkfest organised by Damien O’Connor needed market input. I’m an advocate of grower clusters, based on the bands of the different microns of wool, and marketing it directly to the processors of the end product.”

He has long campaigned against government departments and state-owned enterprises using synthetic carpets and fabrics, complaining that, “our corporates and government are not very good at supporting New Zealand products”. Boards of state agencies should insist on New Zealand-made wool fabrics during office fit-outs, he says.

“The big guys should play a greater role in the support of an industry that filters right through our society, from the grower to the processor and end user. We all win. You don’t need fancy think tanks and advisory boards to work that out.”

The recent announcement of an accord in the construction industry, looking at industry sustainability and the Government’s procurement policies is welcome news, Green says. “For years I’ve found it easier to get acceptance of our New Zealand-made wool fabrics in New York – where we’ve completed nine projects – than Wellington, which is insane. I’m hoping the accord extends to interiors, as all our wool fabrics are manufactured in New Zealand. Our wool – made here!

“We’re currently supplying our upholstery collection to the new Defence HQ in Wellington, but we had to lobby hard both at the political level and at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment level. The architects all get our New Zealand wool story and are very supportive, but at the purchasing level within government, those specifications are often changed to inferior imports with little regard to the overall benefits to our economy.

“In my travels, it’s recognised that New Zealand grows the best wool in the world. Hopefully, the Government will finally accept this and our locally manufactured products will be accepted as specified by the architect rather than substituted.”

Another battle will be matching or overcoming the sales incentives that retailers earn from cheaper synthetic products. “They get commissions on synthetic carpets,” Amie and James Nilsson say, explaining that a buyer may go into a store looking for a wool carpet, but be led towards synthetics that yield the salesperson a better return. “Wool blends”, which may consist of just 15% natural fibres, are another distraction. Despite wool’s warmth and its organic, natural and renewable qualities, when it comes to carpet, price is the stumbling block.

That is less of a problem for Green and the wool throws sold by Maxwellrodgers Fabrics. He recently supplied 10,000 throws to a hotel in Las Vegas, filled a large order for Caesars Palace and sold 4500 throws to Viking Ocean Cruises.

“We do hotels around the world; we do a throw for the hospitality industry. The first thing they look at is design, the second thing is quality, then service and delivery. Price is their fifth priority, and sustainability six, seven or eight. It’s not the real driving force in the decision-making process.”

The Nilssons are taking a leaf from the same book. Hushaberry targets the higher-end accommodation market. The company is selling carpet, throws and upholstery to Blanket Bay luxury lodge in Glenorchy. It is also supplying acoustic wool wall panels for a recording studio and a hospital.

Hushaberry sets out to convince interior designers and architects of the role wool can play, not just in interior spaces, but in textiles in general. “What we’re trying to do is offer a sort of channel to a market that’s wanting to buy into a part of New Zealand,” says James Nilsson. “We’re trying to offer something that is local.” They sell direct “to try to educate people along the way”, Amie Nilsson says.

Making waves

There is no shortage of good stories in the wool industry, although they are generally niche, best illustrated by the idea of wool as a surfboard filling. Tauranga-based surfboard maker Paul Barron saw the fibre’s potential when he spilt board resin on his woollen jumper. The lump that resulted convinced him that he could replace fibreglass in surfboard shells with freshly resined wool.

“With this technology, we can produce a surfboard that has the potential to outperform traditional boards. Basically, you grow a sheep, shear it, wash the wool twice in water and make a material that is light, flexible, durable and fast,” says Barron.

He has partnered with New Zealand Merino to develop the wool-composite technology using low-priced coarse wool. Brakenridge says the fibre’s tensile strength “means that products made with this new technology are lighter and more flexible” than traditional boards, yet just as tough.

Barron has gone into business with US-based Firewire Surfboards and designed and built a new Woolight range of boards, which are about to go on sale here. Firewire, co-owned by champion surfer Kelly Slater, sees the move to wool as contributing to its goal of having the company achieve a zero-landfill target by 2020.

Firewire’s co-owner and chief executive, Mark Price, was in New Zealand last December to meet Barron and Pāmu (formerly Landcorp) farmers who are supplying the wool for Woolight surfboards. “Not only is New Zealand a country with a long and rich surfing tradition, but also the growers we are sourcing the wool from share our values of doing things in a better way,” Price says. “Surfers by definition commune with nature on a daily basis, so they have a heightened sensitivity towards the environment and can relate to the technology that wool offers in terms of performance, and obviously the sustainability story is off the charts.”

Brakenridge has high hopes for the surfboard initiative. “It’s only just kicking off but it’s bloody exciting because it ticks so many boxes. With wool, there are two markets: strong – or coarse – and fine.” But, he says, the coarse-wool story has been told wrong. “The reason we’re not doing better in strong wool is largely down to the wiring of the industry.”

Brakenridge points to the success of such merino-based firms as Icebreaker, Untouched World and shoe maker Allbirds, which has become an international hit. “It’s going gangbusters,” he says.

Three-year-old Allbirds is valued at more than US$1.4 billion. Its joint chief executive, Tim Brown, is a New Zealander born in Britain. The company began by selling a style of woollen sports shoe, which Time magazine called “the world’s most comfortable shoes”. That attracted flocks of Silicon Valley aficionados and the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, and the business took off. The key is that Allbirds is promoted and seen as environmentally friendly footwear because it is made of wool. That’s a message makers of wool carpets and fabrics have now absorbed.

Another advantage of wool over synthetics is biodegradability: stick it in the ground and it will degrade relatively quickly. “Put it in the compost and within 18 months it’s gone,” says Amie Nilsson. The Nilssons have supplied woollen weed mats for commercial forest growers, calling it “the most renewable and sustainable resource you can get”.

Green took a chance last Christmas in New York where he was marketing his throws and fabrics – or, as he puts it, “selling the wool story because there’s no wool industry telling that story”. He had an image made of a sheep in a red baseball cap with long orange hair hanging down. It was emblazoned with the Trump-style phrase, “Make Guest Rooms Grand Again”. He was warned both Democrat and Republican voters might be angered by the almost-sacrilegious imagery. To his relief and amusement, people on both sides of the US political divide laughed at and embraced the pitch.

If only all of wool’s problems were so easily solved.

This article was first published in the April 27, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.