By the time merino fibres have been cleaned, scoured, carded, spun, dyed and fabricated into a soft-touch garment, the resulting $400 cardigan will always find a market, says McCullough. “Wool apparel sells most strongly in markets with high disposable incomes, and in places where it can become cold in winter. So China is a driver for this industry, as a middle class of about 300 million affluent Chinese emerges.”
He says China has taken to wool very quickly and now has similar usage rates to Europe – about 1 kilogram of wool per person per year. The obvious exception to the “middle class, cold winter” rule is the US, where man-made fibres rule. “The United States’ use of wool is around 300 grams per person,” says McCullough. “It’s an underdone market with a lot of runway for us.”
Wool’s benefits seem too good to be true, but they are confirmed by science. In a 2009 investigation into the use of woollen underwear and bedding to alleviate symptoms of fibromyalgia, Turkish academic Emine Kara Kiyak PhD found that wool alleviates the pain associated with fibromyalgia because it stabilises the body’s temperature.
She says of wool, “Clothes fulfil a basic human need to maintain body temperature (homeostasis) by protecting the body against temperature changes and other external effects. The heat-keeping capacity of animal wool is higher than that of plant or synthetic fibres.
‘In addition, wool fibre, particularly knitted wool, forms sites of isolation where air is stored, especially if the wool fibre is knitted from wool threads. Wool textile is able to absorb 30-50 per cent of its weight in dampness and, therefore, is able to pull sweat away from the body, thus protecting it from temperature change.”
The lure of wool is strong for those who have grown up around it. Paolo Zegna, president of Italian clothing company Lanificio Ermenegildo Zegna, might preside over the world’s largest menswear company by revenue (Zegna makes suits for Tom Ford, Gucci and Dunhill), but he is still in awe of the fibre. “It’s incredible to think that wool fibres are so resilient and elastic that they can be bent 30,000 times without damaging them, or that they can be stretched up to a third of their length and then spring back into place.”
The company, usually associated with expensive suits and jackets, is also investing in wool as sports clothing, mostly using superfine merino wool from Australia. “It allows a strong and soft cloth, while being woven in a way that allows it to keep its natural breathable properties.
“Our Techmerino project is the synthesis of the best attributes of merino wool and the most sophisticated wool processing and finishing techniques,” says Zegna. “The result is a fabric that breathes, adapts to temperature, is quick drying and easy-care. It is designed for contemporary life.”
Along with Millennials and sporty types, gender might also be playing a role in wool’s resurgence. Cynthia Jarratt, chief marketing officer for Australian Wool Network, which owns wool fashion brands such as MerinoSnug, Hedrena and Only Merino, points out that 75 per cent of their woollen garment sales are to women. She says in the female wool market, there is little resistance to the price tag on a high-quality, high-cost superfine merino cardigan.
“Women who own those garments are prepared to maintain them and wear them for many years, says Jarratt. “Part of the appeal of wool is the durability.”
Provenance is also a big part of wool’s status. “As part of our DNA provenance program, we put a QR code on the garment so customer scans can see where the wool came from, right down to the grower,” she says.
Wool’s comeback in fashion might also be a turning point against the “more is better” culture encouraged by cheap polyesters and outlet stores. As the CEO of German clothing company Ortovox, Thomas Moe, says: “Wearing wool, you have all the fibre’s benefits, such as odour resistance. One wool garment is going to be more expensive than a comparable polyester garment, but since you need [fewer] garments you actually come out better.”
Moe’s comments might point to a deeper change: the resurgence of wool is a reflection of consumers prioritising value over price.
Sourced: Financial Review