Outside the box

New Zealand wool is getting a modern twist. A drop in crossbred wool prices over the past ten years has forced the country’s wool industry to shift away from a dependence on carpets, curtains and upholstery, and look for new ways to utilise the ancient fibre.

The nation earns around $37 billion from primary sector exports; these products are sold overseas for approximately $250 billion. This means other countries are enjoying a $200 billion financial windfall from New Zealand wool. But our producers and entrepreneurs are fighting back.

New Zealand’s AgResearch is one of the world’s leading science and technology organisations. It’s developing new technologies and sharing its knowledge to assist the global agriculture sector in the areas of biosecurity, agricultural management systems and climate change.

“Wool fibres have quite amazing attributes,” says Dr Stewart Collie, Science Team Leader of Bioproduct & Fibre Technology at AgResearch, whose research interests include textiles for technical and healthcare applications and the comfort properties of apparel – including wool.

“The durability of the textile – to be able to survive the bending and abrasion and washing and all the other things we do to it – while also being comfortable to wear and protecting us from the environment, makes it unique.”

Wool’s magical qualities lend themselves to a multitude of uses. It’s stronger than steel, finer than human hair and it’s naturally flame-resistant, with an ignition point of approximately 1,382 degrees Fahrenheit. Wool can absorb and repel water simultaneously – the fibre has a water repelling exterior but can also absorb water up to 30% of its weight.

Global construction is responsible for 40% of the current CO2 emissions and, as it heads towards a more sustainable and environmentally friendly future, this part of the world is the inspiration behind using sheep wool as a building component far removed from the traditional textile usage.

“Wool is a fibre that addresses a lot of the concerns that are emerging in the world from an environmental perspective,” Dr Collie says.

“We’re seeing a move away from non-renewable material use – products that don’t endear to the environment at the end of their life – to more natural materials.”

Terra Lana in Christchurch makes acoustic insulation products from wool fibres to create cleaner and greener living and working environments. Wool fibres are also being added to the clay materials used in bricks to mechanically improve their strength while making them more environmentally friendly.

So how does New Zealand’s wool quality stack up globally? It’s highly respected. “New Zealand crossbred wool is well thought of around the world. It’s high-quality, with a nice white fibre; is odourless and relatively free of contaminants,” Dr Collie says.

Building and warming our homes and businesses is just the first step in using New Zealand sheep wool to improve our quality of life. On land and sea, New Zealand’s innovators are making headlines around the world. Allbirds is an ethical footwear brand founded by Tim Brown, former soccer player and ex-captain of the New Zealand national team. The company uses New Zealand merino wool for its shoes, which were voted ‘the world’s most comfortable shoe’ by TIME magazine in the US.

Tauranga-based Kiwi surfboard maker Paul Barron has developed a wool cloth made from merino called ‘Woolight,’ to replace traditional fibreglass in the surfboard manufacturing process.

“A lot of the ideas for new uses and products of wool come from people outside the traditional wool industry – entrepreneurial-type people who have an idea and think, ‘what story do I want to create?’” Dr Collie says.

“They may not even necessarily know what the benefits might be, but they like the idea of doing it. Wool has a complex multilevel structure which you have to try and understand, so the science behind it is really interesting,” he says.

Perhaps, most excitingly of all, the 10,000-year-old fibre could be heading into space. Auckland-based company Lanaco uses natural wool as a critical ingredient for air filtration products, and has developed a unique sheep brand to make air filters for the healthcare and medical sector, and anti-pollution masks for public use.

NASA is evaluating one of Lanaco’s filter systems for possible use to protect astronauts in the event of onboard fires.
If successful, it will be an integral part of the Orion spacecraft’s emergency life-support systems from 2020.

With the nation’s wool prices holding firm in the first half of 2019, its apparent innovation is playing its part in getting New Zealand’s wool industry back on its feet.

Reported by Ben Cook for our AA Directions Winter 2019 issue

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