Lighter, Finer Qualities Add to Wool’s Performance Story. By Emily Walzer
It all starts with the sheep, but it doesn’t end there. Not in today’s wool business where everything from spinning technology to sportswear trends are expanding the appeal of this natural fiber. The latest developments have suppliers thinking differently about end use possibilities and influencing consumer perceptions about wearing wool for active outdoor activities.
“Newness and innovation is an area that is driving excitement in the wool industry,” says Woolmark’s Head of Americas, Michelle A. Lee. “Merino wool is taking on some exciting momentum in new product categories like footwear, accessories, and shirting, as well as trans-seasonal, everyday items like tees and jackets. While it’s always been a performance fiber, consumers are starting to really understand this concept, as evidenced by the increase in wool products in the sports and outdoor market.”
Merino’s momentum is attracting industry and consumer attention alike. “In the last few years we’ve had more yarn spinners willing to make fine wool yarn, and make fine wool yarn specifically for the active/outdoor market,” explains Roy Kettlewell, Wool Technical Service Consultant, American Wool Council. “People have finally woken up to the fact that wool fiber is ideal for sports wear.” Wool’s moisture management, odor-control and thermo-regulation properties make “a really strong story for wool,” says Kettlewell, a Sydney, Australia-based 40-year veteran of the wool business.
“Nowadays people are thinking next to skin, versatility, increased performance and washability,” says Rita Samuelson, marketing director, American Sheep Industry Association. “This has created a new space in the market for Merino.” She mentions hosiery as a game-changer, stating, “Wool is made for socks! It has all the performance and now you can wash it, and no shrink.” Samuelson adds, “The technology existed in the ’80s in the U.S., but consumers wouldn’t use it here—it was moth balls. But when wool came back in socks, things started to change.”
Kelly Nester, CEO, Nester Hosiery has been on the front lines of that trend, with the launch of the Farm to Feet brand five years ago that features USA-made Merino wool socks. He sees real innovation happening in the knitting room, with lighter weight yarns for different applications. “It’s exciting, and a testament to the quality of the yarn,” says Nester, who explains that more brands are getting good quality Merino into the market. For example Farm to Feet uses a super-fine, but strong yarn on 200 needle socks. “200 needle machinery has been used for really fine, super-light dress socks, but now we’re using that machine for sport applications.” Following on the heels of socks – literally – is wool for footwear. New from the Suedwolle Group, for example, is the “Beta spun” yarns that have been developed internally through the spinning process. These yarns are extremely durable and strong, and will be featured in footwear at Winter OR in Denver. Woolmark also has eyes on wool footwear. Says Lee, “We’re seeing huge demand for knitted uppers. As a whole, knit technology is taking off.”
Tech for Today’s Wool
The trend away from fine wool yarns being used for woven wear has given way to fine wool spun yarns specifically suited to jersey knits. Two spinning technologies in particular lend themselves to the active outdoor market, according to Kettlewell:
Core spinning and Wrap spinning. These technologies are not new, having been around in the weaving industry. What is new is that they are now being adopted for active lifestyle. Core spinning makes a yarn that has spandex down the middle, and wool around the outside. That gives the yarn additional stretch and allows that extra bit of stretch, for form-fitting and compression garments. Wrap spinning is the ability to wrap a polyester filament around the outside of the wool yarn. “This makes the yarn much stronger, so you can make a lighter weight jersey fabric that doesn’t sacrifice strength,” says Kettlewell. “You’ve still got mostly wool there, 85 to 95 percent, but it’s protected by the wrapped filament, and as such improves resistance to pilling and abrasion.”
Other technologies are also coming on the scene. Woolmark reports that Nanshan, a large vertical mill in China, has developed an amazing weatherproof, 100 percent wool fabric called “Optim.” “It is lightweight and due to its extremely dense weave structure it provides wind and water resistance, as well as all the amazing benefits of wool, like odor resistance, temperature regulation and moisture management.” Lee explains. “This technology is now being expanded into double-faced and other lightweight variations.”
Suedwolle’s Naturetexx yarns continue to be an area of continued interest. These are yarns that are processed without chemicals to provide total-easy-care (washability without felting). Suedwolle developed, and is the sole producers of this technology. Blends increasingly bring newness to the market. Suedwolle has launched several new products that include blends with Cordura, Tencel, Thermocatch, and silk—each complementing the inherent features of wool.
Cordura Combat Wool fabrics are constructed with Merino wool and nylon 6,6 fibers. Introduced just three years ago, Cordura Combat Wool is now available in a variety of styles and constructions. A new collaboration with Triple Aught Design for sweaters using Cordura Combat Wool will be showcased at the upcomingStory continues in full issue.