The wool industry is fighting back against fast fashion and synthetic fibres with high-tech innovations in new garment categories
There are few sights more British than a flock of sheep grazing on a hillside. Alongside New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, the UK is one of the world’s largest wool producers in the world, yielding almost 22,000 tonnes a year, estimates the British Wool Marketing Board.
Yet, wool, once a staple of the UK textile industry, has been in decline for years in the face of competition from manmade fibres, the rise of fast fashion, which favours cheaper, synthetic, and a fall in the price paid to farmers for what they produce.
In the face of this crisis, wool has been fighting back to regain its former prominence in the UK wardrobe. Organisations such as Woolmark and the British Wool Marketing Board aim to increase the use, profile of and price paid for wool. And innovative manufacturers are producing new high-tech applications for what was once seen as a traditional fibre.
The decline of wool was really as result of the rise of cheap, synthetic materials
Lesley Prior, owner of Bowmont UK
The Campaign for Wool launched in 2010 to spread awareness of the fibre’s benefits in clothing and beyond.
Its promotional activities include Wool Week – an awareness initiative that this year takes place on 10-16 October and will be spearheaded by the “Wool BnB”, where an entire hotel from carpet to clothing will be made from the material.
High-profile retailers, including Marks & Spencer and Burberry, have pledged their support, and the price paid to UK farmers for their wool has more than tripled from 48p/kg in 2009 to 157p/kg in 2015, British Wool Marketing Board figures show.
In September, the campaign brought together leading figures in the wool industry, including designer Sir Paul Smith, M&S CEO Steve Rowe and campaign patron the Prince of Wales, for the first Dumfries House Wool Conference. The conference came to the conclusion that the outlook for wool is far from bleak, but the future for the fabric relies on greater awareness of the natural attributes and sustainability of the fibre, and continuing innovation.
Some of wool’s natural properties have advantages over manmade fibres – but it comes at a cost.
Lesley Prior, owner of Bowmont UK, which produces cashmere and merino wool from sheep and goats in Devon, believes fast fashion meant wool fell out of favour for everyday use: “The decline of wool was really as result of the rise of cheap, synthetic materials. Cheap materials fostered a cheap, throwaway attitude to clothing.”
However, she is optimistic that the industry is at a turning point: “Cheap, fast fashion is a short-term phenomenon and people are slowly realising that we can’t keep on throwing out clothes. People are looking again at the properties of wool as a natural fibre that ticks the boxes for sustainability, and environmental and social responsibility.”
Its functional benefits mean that it’s the best possible fibre we could be wearing next to our skin
Andy Caughey, managing director of Armadillo Merino
More than simply extolling the virtues of wool in a technical aspect, this re-focusing on sustainability is another way in which the wool industry is seeking to combat its decline, and campaigners are encouraging buyers to feel more connected with the products that they buy.
Traditional superfine merino Ram
Ram that produces traditional superfine merino wool
To maintain the upward trajectory of wool in fashion, brands and retailers should seek to create an emotional connection with consumers, telling them the story behind their clothes.
“We have a huge disconnect between our end product and the primary user, and we desperately need to bridge that Gap,” says Prior. “We need to offer as much opportunity as possible for people to ask questions, get hands on, and understand the reality of wool production.”
Innovation in the application of wool’s natural properties (Five unexpected properties of wool, below) is also pushing the boundaries of its use. Armadillo Merino produces technical base layers designed to be worn in extreme conditions. The product was initially developed for the armed forces, in response to the injuries suffered by soldiers when synthetic materials melted on to their. Fire fighters and extreme first responders now also wear its garments, as do astronauts on the International Space Station.
3 nasa astronauts wearing armadillo cobra shirts in iss
Superfine merino wool is subject to compact yarn spinning, which sucks the ends of each fibre into the yarn structure, making the fabric strong and extremely durable. The resulting products are anti-static, fire resistant to 600°C, breathable and odour resistant. The wool also helps maintain skin pH and humidity, which creates an environment that promotes skin healing.
For Andy Caughey, managing director of Armadillo Merino, one of the issues the industry faces is a narrow view of the uses of wool: “We love the properties of merino for luxury suiting and overcoats, but its functional benefits mean that it’s the best possible fibre we could be wearing next to our skin.”
“The more we push the boundaries and discover about the material, the more we wonder why more people don’t know about it. We’re learning so much in the extreme user market, but there is so much relevant to everyday wear.”
The price paid for top-quality wool is simply not enough to keep the farmers going
Lesley Prior, owner of Bowmont UK
Other sectors exploring wool’s natural properties are athleisure and activewear, which are beginning to use merino wool in high-performance garments. Earlier this year, Adidas launched a range of merino wool-based high-performance sportswear, including high-visibility jackets and running tops. Brands such as Ashmei and Icebreaker also create activewear garments using merino wool.
Adidas Adistar wool running T-shirt
While the tide may be turning in some aspects of the industry, as the consumer’s focus on sustainability and technical advancement spurs a wool revival both in pricing and use, the wool industry is in a far from solid position.
“It’s no time for complacency,” warns Prior. “We’re currently holding our own, but getting wool to where it should be – the fibre of choice for many applications currently using synthetics – is a much bigger challenge.”
Price pressures from manmade materials remain a huge issue for the wool industry, with fabrics like acrylic much faster and cheaper to produce, making it difficult for wool to compete and remain viable for production.
“At the superfine end, the price paid for top-quality wool is simply not enough to keep the farmers going,” says Prior. “Some kinds of wool have seen a revival in prices but superfine wool has been slow to catch up, and we are reaching a critical point.”
The technology around wool, as well as its natural abilities and sustainable credentials should mean that the future of wool use in the fashion industry is bright, and the work of the Campaign for Wool and other organisations to increase public awareness of these properties has already resulted in a slight turnaround for the industry.
However, for those fighting for the future of the industry there is still a need to spread a clear message to consumers, designers and retailers: “Keep this in mind every time you reach for a synthetic fabric: ‘Could I make this in wool?’,” says Prior. “By choosing and using wool in all its multitude of types, forms and applications, they will help the growers, the wider industry and the planet.”
Five unexpected properties of wool
Biodegradable: when buried, wool naturally decomposes in just a few years
Fire resistant: high in nitrogen and water, wool is hard to set alight and does not melt when lit
Odour resistant: wool sheds bacteria naturally, so odours do not build up on the fabric.
Breathable: wool absorbs water vapour, leaving less perspiration on the skin and therefore less odour
Hypoallergenic: wool is naturally resistant to dust mites, mould and bacteria growth