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Journal

The green side of wool

We have a soft spot for sheep.  For many, sheep are symbolic to New Zealand culture with the rearing of sheep being the backbone to the economy for many years.  

Sheep farming was established in New Zealand by the 1850s and has played an important role in the economy ever since. For several decades wool accounted for more than a third of New Zealand’s exports by value with the sheep population peaking at just over 70 million in 1982.

This number is significant when comparing it to New Zealand’s human population.  By 2020, sheep numbers dropped to 26 million, following a decline in profitability compared to other types of farming, particularly dairying.

While also farmed for their meat, today’s article focuses on sheep wool and its environmental attributes.

Image credit: Martin Bisof

Image credit: Martin Bisof

Wool is a natural and renewable resource and as long as our beloved sheep are eating the tasty green pastures from New Zealand farms they will always produce wool.   Wool has amazing properties that make it ideal for many applications from home textiles through to incontinence underwear.

At this point in time, cotton and synthetic fibres are the most commonly used and produced fibres globally, however their performance does not come close to wool, in particular the environmental benefits.

From wool to yarn

The wool clip (total yield of wool shorn during one season from the sheep) is sent to the scourers where the wool is cleaned and dried, and from there to a woollen spinner where the fibre is spun into yarn.  The yarn is then sent on to the manufacturer of textile products where many different processes are involved.

The yarn is wound onto dye cones and dyed to the required colours. Next the yarn is warped onto beams. These warp beams are then threaded through the looms so that the weft yarn can run across the warp to create a woven fabric.

Learn more on warp vs weft here.

The fabric is then inspected and then washed and dried. Very few chemicals are used in the processing, typically only water and heat.

Images sourced from interweave

Images sourced from interweave

Environmental benefits of wool over cotton or polyester fibres

Wool is part of the natural carbon cycle. Many textiles and fibres are made from carbon-based products, but only some, such as wool, are made from renewable atmospheric carbon. When wool is discarded, it will naturally decompose into the earth over months or years, slowly releasing important nutrients back into the soil.  So wool acts like a fertiliser by slowly releasing valuable nutrients and carbon back into the earth.

How does wool biodegrade?

All materials from animal and plant origin have some element of biodegradability, meaning that they are able to decompose through the action of living organisms, such as fungi and bacteria.

Wool is composed of the natural protein keratin, similar to the protein that makes up human hair. When keratin is broken down naturally by microorganisms, the products do not pose any environmental hazard.

How long does wool take to decompose?

Wool biodegrades readily in as little as three to four months however the rate varies depending on soil, climate and wool attributes.  This process releases key elements such as nitrogen, sulphur and magnesium back to the soil, which can be utilised by growing plants.

What are the best conditions for wool to biodegrade?

The unique outer structure of woollen fibres (keratin) are tough and water-repellent making them an extremely resilient and durable fibre in normal conditions. However, when disposed woollen fibres will easily biodegrade in warm, moist conditions and if buried in soil, fungal and bacterial growths develop which produce enzymes that will digest the wool. 

In comparison, cotton takes at least five months to biodegrade and while still relatively good, slightly longer than wool. And, comparing wool to polyester fibres, well unfortunately, polyester fibres have a much harder time decomposing. They do eventually break down, but it does take many decades for the polyester fibres to do so.

Image sourced from New Zealand Story

Image sourced from New Zealand Story

WONDROUS WOOL – THE POSITIVES 

  • Less energy and water than other fibres to produce
  • Rapidly renewable resource
  • Abundant local sources available
  • Sheep can graze on dry, unusable land
  • Holistic sheep farming practices can positively impact on degraded land
  • Fibre is used in its least processed state
  • Able to absorb and retain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the air more rapidly than other fibres, helping to improve indoor air quality
  • Great for sound proofing by dampening or absorbing sound
  • Naturally fire retardant and antistatic
  • Durable with high abrasion resistance
  • Biodegradable, reusable and recyclable

REUSE OF WOOL

There are plenty of ways to reuse wool. From charity/opp shops to clothes swap schemes, there is increasing demand for vintage woollen garments. 

The key thing to remember is the longer a garment or product is used, the more value is gained from the raw materials that went into making it. 

RECYCLING WOOL

The same theory applies to recycling wool items. When the same wool fibres are put to further use whether that be for fashion, technology or textiles for instance, the environmental impact from those fibres is lessened.

 

How existing wool items are recycled - there are three main routes in wool recycling:

  • The closed loop system - A mechanical process that returns garments to the raw fibre state and turns the fibre into yarn again, to produce new products (particularly suitable for wool knitwear).
  • The open loop system - Here, the wool from a previous product becomes the basis for a new, usually industrial product such as insulation or mattress padding.
  • Re-engineering - Getting creative, companies recycle old or unsold items into new products, like making a bag from an old woollen jacket, or using production waste such as trimmings to make other items. Wool is valuable. Very little wool goes to waste.
Image sourced from New Zealand Story

Image sourced from New Zealand Story

New Innovations with Wool in the textile industry

The exciting innovations taking place across the world in wool processing technologies means the creation of more efficient and environmentally friendly processes in yarn development, knit and weave manufacture and dyeing and finishing. 

In regard to soft furnishings, there is new technology for digital printing on wool fabrics paving the way for new design opportunities for wool fabrications.

Digital Printing on Wool

Digital fabric printing is where colour dyes are applied simultaneously in varying concentrations to a prepared fabric surface through inkjet technology, producing a printed fabric with intricate designs with infinite possibilities.

Traditionally used for synthetic fibres, top designers in the textile industry have now applied digital printing to wool fabric, ensuring a wider variety of application for wool.

 

Innovative new products are also popping up in different industries such as fashion, sports, footwear, interior, protection wear and automotive industries.  Some of the more unique products are:

  • Wool denim
  • Wool footwear
  • Facemasks
  • Wool velvet
Image sourced from Allbirds

Image sourced from Allbirds

In summary, it’s obvious the environmental benefits of choosing wool over other fibres is beneficial in so many ways.   As a wholesaler of fabrics to the interior design market, James Dunlop Textiles is constantly looking at ways to bring sustainability into the design of our products and with wool fabrics being a popular choice of designers and a category we want to keep innovation, you can be sure to see some new and exciting wool textiles being developed in the near future. 

Related

Life on a McKenzie country sheep farm

People & Places

As part of our series on Wool, today we hear from the helm of James Dunlop Textiles, Ben Moir, Managing Director.   Ben was raised on a high-country sheep station in the central South Island on the rugged landscape of the McKenzie Country which is synonymous with quality wool.  Ben imparts his insight into life growing up on a high country sheep station immersed in wool, and how his formative years have provided him with the skills and tenacity to lead a dynamic textile business.