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There are opportunities for strong wool based on quality and sustainability but it needs action plus applied research & development rather than more reports

There are opportunities for strong wool based on quality and sustainability but it needs action plus applied research & development rather than more reports

There was a time when strong wool was used widely for garments. That included woollen underwear, woollen shirts, woollen jerseys and woollen jackets.  Apart from the fine wool produced by Merino sheep, those markets have largely been swept aside by synthetics.

There was also a time when carpets were predominantly of the woollen type. Then some lower cost but inferior synthetic carpets came along. And then some superior synthetic but still lower cost carpets came along. As with garments, the strong wool carpets have been largely swept aside. Strong wool carpets do still exist, but they are now a niche.

Here in New Zealand, Cavalier has recently announced that it is transitioning away from synthetic carpets and within a year all of its carpets will be made from wool. That is exciting news for woolgrowers, but only time will tell whether it is a wise as well as brave decision. 

Merino wool sits in a different category from strong wool and Merino wool is doing well. That is because the fine wool produced by Merino sheep does not itch against the skin. But alas, Merino wool can indeed only be produced by Merino sheep. And Merino sheep were not designed by nature to live in the higher rainfall zones of New Zealand. They do well in the dry lands of Central Otago and in the drier parts of the High Country. It is a brave farmer who tries to run them elsewhere.

Some weeks back I wrote in somewhat dismissive tones about the latest report released by the Government in relation to the future of strong wool. I described that report here as “aspirational high-level fluff”.   I was trying to be polite. I made a passing suggestion that if strong wool does have a big future it could be as building insulation, but I could see no mention of that or any other specific in that Government-sponsored report. I also noted that in relation to mainstream acceptance of woollen batting for building insulation, as opposed to a niche top-end market, there is a need for additional technology that is yet to be developed.

My comments about wool in that previous article were largely some passing blows that I was making in the bigger context of food and fibre innovation. But it led to an email from Andrew Everist of Terra Lana. As a consequence, I spent a morning with Andrew and his co-owner and general manager James Gallagher. They showed me over the factory, we talked out the future, and we shared our passion about what the future could hold. 

For those not familiar with Italian, ‘lana’ means ‘wool’. So Terra Lana is about wool and the land.

Two key products that Terra Lana produces are insulation batting and biodegradable groundcover matting, with the latter used instead of plastic for weed control and erosion management within landscaping projects. Currently, these products are made predominantly from off-cuts in woollen carpet manufacture. If it were not for Terra Lana, these offcuts would go to landfill.

If this reference to off-cuts makes it sound as if Terra Lana is a bit like a cottage industry, then that gives the wrong impression. Terra Lana is a significant and fast-growing business with some big machinery. But it is not all easy sailing.

In searching for a new ‘El Dorado’ for strong wool, it is these and similar new uses where we have to be thinking. The big question is whether these products can become mainstream or are they always destined to be no more than niche products.

Another related use is in acoustic materials. Wall panels incorporating wool can do marvellous things for the acoustics of public buildings such as schools, open-plan offices, hospitals and theatre facilities.  These panels can also look very attractive.  Architects working on high-end buildings are already onto this use, and it is something to get excited about.

So, things are happening but nowhere near fast enough if the wool industry is to be transformed.  A lot will depend on how committed society is to sustainability versus petrochemical-derived products.

If society wants the lowest-cost options then the petrochemical-derived products are going to win out for a long time. My rough calculations indicate that even if the price of oil were to increase by a factor of five, then a wool-based batt will struggle to compete if price is the only criteria.

However, if the question is posed another way, and we ask what would be the cost of new public buildings if wool-based insulation was used, then the increase would be trivial as a percentage of the total cost.. We would also have buildings that were much more environmentally friendly and less likely to experience sick-building syndrome.

Right now, it is not possible to make insulation batts that are 100 percent wool. This is because over time the wool will slump or settle. So, unfortunately there has to be some polyester or similar in the mix. Getting to 100 percent wool requires an R&D program, but that is beyond the capacity of Terra Lana or anyone else in the industry.  It needs a couple of passionate scientists, most likely chemical engineers, who are tasked with working alongside industry to find the solutions using trial and error investigations.

There needs to be another couple of scientists tasked with further development of acoustic tiles. That is more of a fine-tuning task and development task, and minimising the need for non-natural components.   

When it comes to R&D, there is something wrong with the balance within our existing R&D systems in the universities and Crown Research Institutes. They need to get closer to industry. The charge rates for contract research are also inordinately high, with overhead charges typically in the order of 130 percent. Applied research requires a focus on cycles of trial and error, driving through to outputs rather than reports.

For landscaping products, the path forward seems simple. It depends on a requirement that landscaping materials for public projects must be biodegradable. It is remarkable how quickly plastic has been replaced in our supermarkets and it could be the same for groundcover products.

Whether the above uses can ever bring wool back to its glory days is debatable. However, there is potential for them to make a real difference on the journey to increasing sustainability within our society. We don’t need any more reports. What we need is a combination of action and applied R&D that can underpin consequent marketing.


*Keith Woodford was Professor of Farm Management and Agribusiness at Lincoln University for 15 years through to 2015. He is now Principal Consultant at AgriFood Systems Ltd. . He can be contacted at kbwoodford@gmail.com.

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10 Comments

Synthetic hydrocarbons can be produced from air and middle eastern PV electricity for something on the order of $100/barrel. Wool will never be able to compete with synthetics for insulation.

Agree that action is urgently needed but its getting to the bottom of the barrel when you are competing against so many options. Im building a house and looked at wool insulation but the other options available are just bewildering and cost less and have higher insulation properties. A tough call.
Who is going to stump up with the cash to do this R and D? Government won't do it all so its farmers who will have to put cash in - have they got it? will they do it? Wool along with other non meat animal products seem to be under huge pressure which is seriously worrying. If we want sustainable wool products in buildings it has to be beyond NZ as well to consume the volumes produced.No easy solutions here.

Fossil hydrocarbons will remain a valuable resource for the forseable future. Just try imagining a hospital without their products. The problem in the context of increasing CO2 levels is because we also call them fossil fuels. Clearly we need alternative sources of energy (or just use less), but as a manufacturing resource we are only concerned with a finite supply. Only when that is sufficiently diminished will alternatives get a look in.
Even wool carpets are knotted into a plastic based backing.

I have been looking at insulation also. Considered wool but after research found I couldn't trust locking a wool product in behind a solid wall. Imagine having to replace if it doesn't last.

I was the same only way wool would last is with some nasty chemicals, when recycled glass is probably going to outlast all of us.

Synthetic carpets should be banned just on the basis of being a fire hazard, whereas wool carpet is resistant to fire. Also how many years will it take for synthetic carpet to break down in landfill when it reaches the end of its life and is replaced.
Synthetic carpet starts to look worn and tatty after only a few years, while wool carpet still looks good even after decades of use.

Good article. But govt needs to bite the bullet and actually upscale the amount it spends on Basic research and find a different way to make money from applied research.

There should be a govt funded centre for applied materials research that is the hub of a techpark dedicated to new applications for New Zealand materials. Whether this is wool, wood fibre, composite materials or whatever.

Say a local engineer or inventor has an idea for a new machine or production process. Can the govt not subsidise the prototype construction in return for a 5% share of patent royalties if the prototype leads to a successful new company or industry?

If there was a dedicated investment fund that received royalties from past successful patents or company shareholdings and if that fund was required to reinvest a percentage of it's funds in new prototypes and start-ups then there would be the potential for a sustainable, continuous investment in R & D that was independent of political vagaries.

Something similar to the New Zealand Super Fund but for R & D.

Happy with our new 100% NZ wool carpet throughout the house. T'was a conscious decision to Buy Local and to hell with any comparison shopping. Feltex, IIRC.

The need for serious IP development re wool use in other settings is surely a 'shovel-ready' research thread. But whether it gets the shove that's needed - I would not bet the farm on seeing any progress soon.

Wool carpets all through our home. And I'm going back to wool for running, hiking clothing etc. Way better than synthetic fabrics for the outdoors IMO.

One of the issues with strong wool production is that as a farmer, the fleece is treated as a minor source of income and so we don't time shearing to get the best quality wool. When we are producing 1.5 lambs/ewe and selling 1.25 lambs per ewe at $150/lamb and getting $2/kg of clean mainshear wool x 3kg per ewe, it's a no brainer.

Back in the '80s when wool made up 50% of the income and lambs were $15, we did alot more prelamb shearing (uses more winter feed) to get better, whiter wool. But it didn't align with animal welfare goals, as wool production is driven by stocking rates. So we had "self induced" droughts from overstocking and lots of thin sheep.

Bearing that in mind, I'm far happier with the current price relativities as we have to have well fed sheep and lambs to make the system humm along. Everyone wins.

Days to the General Election: 19
See Party Policies here. Party Lists here.