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Retailers and brands yet to warm to Wool Week

As another Wool Week draws to a close, some are questioning whether the Campaign for Wool is going far enough to promote the British woollen clothing industry.

As Wool Week took place this week, bringing with it a host of activities and events, knitwear retailers have called for greater promotion if they are to genuinely see the benefit of the Campaign for Wool’s global drive.

The Campaign for Wool was created to address the issue of fair pay and sustainable production for farmers in the wool industry. Supporters aim to educate consumers about the benefits of using wool and the importance of backing the wool market.

But with UK sales of wool in menswear and womenswear shrinking by 6.2% in the year to September 2 according to Kantar Worldpanel, retailers wonder whether they have been left out in the cold as the wool campaign fails to warm up spending.

Keith Ewing, director of Scottish lifestyle indie Number Eight in Stirling, says: “Wool Week hasn’t had a big impact on sales at all. It’s not promoted heavily enough. If you ask the average person in the street, they wouldn’t have a clue about it.”

And it’s not just smaller retailers that have felt underwhelmed by the Wool Week movement.

Zara Juric, founder and creative director of women’s luxury knitwear brand Crumpet, says the campaign is not “hugely on Crumpet’s radar”, although she is hopeful it may have an effect on knitwear sales in the future.

“I’m sure that as the attention and focus on the campaign grows year by year it could have more of an impact on us and the industry,” she says.

Kara Hurry, regional marketing manager at Woolmark, which promotes the use of Australian wool, says there are plans to build activity as the campaign develops in order to make a greater impression on retail sales.

“We are definitely looking to increase the campaign, to make consumers more aware of Wool Week,” London-based Hurry tells Drapers. “We launch the campaign in three new countries every year, and this year we took the vital step of unveiling our social media campaign, which we will build and develop over the next 12 months.

“We need to create activities in store to engage consumers. We need to get people into shops and buying products for retailers and farmers to benefit, so social media is an essential component.”

Another challenge facing knitwear retailers and brands is the influx of low-priced cashmere on the high street.

Glen Tooke, consumer research analyst at Kantar Worldpanel, says the year-on-year decline in sales of woollen items may be due to consumers “feeling even more pinched” and “trading down to cheaper fibres” as a result.

Silvana Palmegiani, store manager and buyer at specialist retailer House of Cashmere, which has a store in London’s Mayfair, says the trend for cheaper cashmere has undoubtedly affected the overall wool business.

“I’ve been working in the industry for the last 30 years, and cashmere used to be a luxury good, something exclusive, but that has changed over time,” she says. “People who are looking for quality will come to us, and the people who are concerned with low prices will go to Primark and H&M.”

“The surge to make cheap cashmere may be a good thing as it makes it affordable for everyone, but it has also opened up the doors for dubious operations as you can’t always be sure of what you’re buying.”

Not everyone has seen a shift from quality to quantity, with some arguing that many customers aren’t wooed by tiny price tags.

“People who buy and wear cashmere are happy to pay more money for it,” says Matt Horstead, owner of premium menswear indie Dartagnan in Chichester, West Sussex. “People are willing to invest and pay more if they think they are investing in quality.”

Horstead is optimistic about the upcoming season, as knitwear “with a twist” is selling particularly well.

Ian maclean, managing director of British knitwear brand John Smedley, agrees that knitwear sales have held up “remarkably well”, and wool’s flexibility means even sportswear brands such as Nike are now using it.

“Research on how wool controls the body temperature and how we can use it has led to it being used for a wider variety of products,” he says. “That will really influence how the consumer sees wool.”

Jean Fang, chief executive of luxury knitwear brand Pringle of Scotland, says knitwear is having a “real moment”.

Fang adds: “This is very exciting as it means there is a real demand for ‘statement’ knits and experimenting with new techniques for really desirable and exciting pieces.”

And despite some naysayers, Scottish knitwear brand Johnstons of Elgin is positive about the longer-lasting effects of Wool Week. 

Retail managing director George McNeil says it is the wool manufacturers’ “responsibility” to educate consumers on the benefits of wool, and getting involved in the campaign has provided a boost in staff morale as well as sales.

“The promotion has a very positive impact on the products that we focus on during the promotion,” he says. “The legacy is in the education that gives the sales assistant the ability to talk confidently about the wool components of the product and sell the features and benefits of such products.”

Wool Week (October 15 to 21) has seen events including:

  • Wool School A collaboration between Campaign for Wool partner retailers and fashion universities, to create special wool-rich (minimum 80%) sweaters, available in stores.
  • Love Wool Knitting lovers nationwide were invited to apply for free knitting patterns to create their own woolly event – large or small.
  • The Clickety Click on the Clickety Clack 25 super-knitters were challenged with a long distance knit-off, to speedily stitch a Union Jack flag in the time it takes for a train to travel from London to Edinburgh and back.
  • Lyle & Scott Woolly Golf The lifestyle brand is showcasing a golf course made of wool outside its Covent Garden store from October 18 to 21.
  • ‘Knitsbridge’ at Harvey Nichols The luxury Knightsbridge department store has been given a woolly makeover and features an oversized needle and thread on the outside of the store.
  • Kennet Barge The barge set off from Liverpool loaded with wool bales, travelling along the original trading route to Saltaire, West Yorkshire.
  • Chelsea Harbour Design Centre The centre has housed a bespoke wool interiors installation.
  • Wool Modern An exhibition from October 22 to 29 in Shanghai will focus on the modern and innovative use of wool and feature labels including Alexander McQueen, Galliano, Giles Deacon, Mark Fast, Lanvin, Paul Smith and Vivienne Westwood.

Story in Numbers

1.3m - Metric tonnes of wool produced each year globally

25% of wool worldwide comes from Australia

60% of the wool produced globally is used to make clothing each year

2008 - Year Campaign for Wool first launched

700 - Love Wool events held in the UK last year during Wool Week

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