Unleashing the superpowers of wool

Our Director Gareth Menzer's Recent Interview with Farmers Weekly, as Featured on Stuff Magazine.

Wool Innovation

Innovators say they have only scratched the surface of the sustainability potential of wool and there is much more to the natural fibres than meets the eye. From mulch mats as a suppressant to weeds and a nutrient provider, to good old homespuns and merino garments for its acclimatising abilities, wool is a versatile product with many uses.

Hemprino is one innovator unleashing the superpowers of wool to create sustainable woollen garments.

Hemprino co-founder Harriet Bell says they wanted to take a more natural approach to a merino blend which is often blended with a synthetic component. That’s where they came across hemp, a natural fibre that provides stability and shape.
large commercial planting at Gisborne Airport

Bell says hemp is the strongest fibre on the planet and one that keeps on giving, needing very little inputs to grow while cleaning the soil that it grows in.

Bell says New Zealand still has a lot to learn about hemp, which is often mistaken for marijuana. "We used to get people saying, can we smoke your jerseys?"

Despite the odd question or two, Bell says this uneducated narrative has changed a lot in recent years, with the implementation of hemp seed oil in superfoods, skincare and cosmetics.

Bell says the versatility of wool and merino make them easy to implement into a lifestyle with little environmental footprint. Hemprino aims to leave no trace, producing garments made of 100% natural, biodegradable fibres. "You very rarely see people look at a garment and actually read the care label. So you can see on our label, it's like reading your ingredients on the back of a [food] packet, that's 80% merino 20% hemp, I know exactly what's in this item. It’s an educational piece I guess."

Time and again, Kiwis young and old are being shown the benefits of wool and its sustainable properties. A science experiment at St John’s primary school in Manitoto showcased this in 2018, burying a synthetic school jersey and a woollen windbreaker with a plastic lining and zip from PGG Wrightson.

In 2023, the results were in. The synthetic jersey was unearthed fully intact and could have been washed and worn again, while the woollen jersey had almost completely biodegraded, leaving only the plastic lining and zip.

Through degradation the woollen jersey had fertilised the soil and fed the grass roots. The cycle was complete; the grass provided high quality feed for sheep, enabling them to produce more wool and continue the sustainable journey.

Weed & Mulch Mats

journey at landfill, Wool.Life collects this to create sustainable mulch squares and mats for trees, gardens Wool.Life’s products including wool weed mats follow a similar cycle. Before low value clippings and ‘out-of-spec’ wool finish their and plantings. Much like dags covering the garden, Wool.Life managing director Gareth Mentzer says the woollen mulch coverings suppress weeds, retain moisture, deter pests and nurture the soil as they degrade. In recovering the wool initially destined for landfill, Mentzer says sustainability is at the heart of their business. "This is a material that once upon a time was being disposed of, but now has been turned into a product that can be used in landscaping and a variety of other opportunities as well, which is pretty cool."

Within the first 12 months of operating, Wool.Life had customers repurchase its products five or six times. "It's a testament to the power of the fibre and the quality of the product that people are prepared to come back and purchase more," Mentzer says. Mentzer says as a company that produces wool products, Wool.Life stays loyal to its source and home grown products. "Our corporate shirts and jerseys are merino, because why would we make wool products but then go and buy other materials? It's just about supporting where we can."

large commercial native planting Founder of Davaar and Co, Kate Macdonald, plays an important role in bringing awareness to the industry. She often educates customers on wool’s environmental benefits and tells the story behind her business on Davaar Station, where her wool is grown. The story is rooted in a deep family history which saw the deaths of three sons across two Macdonald generations, a week-long snow storm resulting in massive stock losses and a revival of the land in the 1940s, which grew fescue seed as a profitable source of income. Macdonald says she tells the history of Davaar Station to connect customers with where their product comes from. "To be able to purchase a jersey from a family that's been working the land for that amount of time is very special." Farming on Davaar Station decades ago saw wool prices much higher than the current market which is sitting at around $3 per kg. Macdonald says she has found ways to diversify her business so she is not reliant on wool prices.

"It’s very different now, wool has very little value in this current economic climate and has been this way for decades. I’m adding value to crossbred wool in a cool, unique way." She’s brought the humble homespun back into fashion by turning it into a garment that anyone can wear, at any time. "You can wear it however you like. It’s a very versatile and timeless piece of clothing. It’s part of a capsule wardrobe that isn’t going to go out of fashion."

Mentzer said the opportunities are endless for businesses to start implementing wool into their products, they just have to know where to look. "I think that the sky's the limit really, It's just finding those current synthetic materials that can be replaced by wool." Bell is also familiar with the challenges of rising costs and the misinformation around farming operations. Rather than giving misery company, she encourages farmers to get out and get to it.

Wool & Synthetic Materials

"Sometimes we sit in our farming echo chamber, frustrated at the false narratives being told about us. Instead, we need to put ourselves out there, tell our stories of what we are doing on farm to better the environment, fencing waterways, improving soil health and educate others. "They are our stories to tell, and if we don't, the space is filled by others telling them for us." From the 1990’s farmers started adopting the use of synthetic materials such as gore-tex, poly-propylene and polar fleece. Chief executive of Bremworth Greg Smith says since synthetics were introduced, the carpet market went from 90% wool to 90% synthetic. In recent weeks, support for wool has been pasted across government papers, with requirements being made for government agencies to select wool over synthetic materials in building specifications. Smith says the requirement could be transformative for the industry, finally reflecting the sustainable reputation wool holds.

"In contrast with synthetic textiles used in construction, wool is a natural product that requires less chemicals and is naturally fire retardant. Woollen carpets are also hypoallergenic and regulate humidity by absorbing moisture when the air is moist and releasing it when the air is dry."

This article originally appeared on Farmers Weekly and online in Stuff

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