The Best Merino Wool Clothing: A Quality Guide

The Best Merino Wool Clothing: A Quality Guide

by Kyle Barraclough

50 Years of Merino Wool Expertise

Buying the best Merino wool clothing in terms of quality raw wool, comfort, durability and manufacture are all topics discussed with James (a.k.a. Jimmy) Jackson. Jimmy is a 50-year veteran of the wool industry. He started in the U.K. where the best wool fabric was made a generation ago; then moved to Australia where the most of the world’s Merino wool is grown; and now consults to manufacturers in China where 85% of all Merino wool is processed.

The Best Merino Wool Clothing: 3 Components of Quality

Libertad

What are the factors in determining the quality of Merino wool clothing?

Jimmy Jackson

How do we define quality? It's very interesting. For the last 20 or 30 years, I've been going out and giving many training courses and lectures to manufacturers, design students, whoever. But, more and more I've been training retailers and brands. And I ask them, 'How do you define quality? What is quality?' I say to them in the audience, you know, every day, every hour you're talking about quality, but, 'What is it?' And, nobody can define it. Some say, 'Oh, a high price.' Or, 'Beautiful colors.' No, no.

About 25 years ago. I had a job for the Hong Kong government to upgrade the wool sector in their textile industry. And I thought, 'How do they define quality?' First of all, the quality of a garment has three components. These three components are linked to what we call 'fitness for purpose.' Something I learned at university when I was studying textile technology talked about "fitness for purpose."

 

The best Merino wool clothing has superior hand feel (i.e. comfort), performance and appearance.

 

Let's go through the three components. The first one is handfeel and I'm not just talking about a soft handle. It's really about a nice handle to fit in line with that type of garment. Sometimes you have a kind of a soft handle that is too limp for that product even though it has a really nice, soft handle. For example, we could produce, more or less, the same sweater for the men's and women's lines under the same fashion brand. Generally speaking, the women's wear would likely be a softer, more flowy handle and the men's wear a bit more robust. What they call a more sporty handle.

Now, if the handle is not nice, it's unlikely that the consumer is going to buy it to start with. So, we think about the consumer because it's the consumer who decides whether to buy or not. So, handle is the first component of quality Merino wool clothing.

The second component is the appearance. And I'm not talking about color or design because that's a personal preference when it comes to quality appearance. So, if there are any non-induced faults in the garment like the lines are skewed, or there are holes in the garment, or whatever. I know some garments are meant to look vintage, like holes in jeans, but I'm talking about non-induced faults. So, if there's a fault in the garment, once again, the consumer is not going to buy it.

The third component, and perhaps one of the most important, because it relates to a second sale. Success in marketing is the second sale. It's like going to a restaurant. Everybody is going to try a new restaurant, but it is no good if they don't go back. So, the second sale was always taught to us as the most important component of quality Merino wool clothing. If you think about it, it means somebody might buy one of Libertad's Merino wool shirts. It's new, it's different, it's exciting. But, if they're not happy with it in terms of performance, or whatever, they're not going to buy a second shirt. On the other hand, if they are happy with it, they are going to buy a second, possibly, and they're going to tell their friends. That's why we were always taught in marketing that the second sale is the most important.

I've got to go in more detail about performance, which is really key. What does performance mean? Performance has to be split into two aspects: wear and wash. First, wear performance. Of course, when you're wearing a Merino wool shirt it can't drop to bits in the elbow, right? Wear performance relates to abrasion resistance, burst strength, pilling, everything to do with wear and endurance.
The second component is laundry performance. Depending on the level of performance that you give your Merino wool clothing - it could be dry clean only; it could be hand wash only; or, it could be machine wash. Whatever it is, it has to stand up.

And there are two main aspects of 'standing up' under the recommended care instructions. One, you don't want any change in dimension. You don't want to shrink, or get bigger one way or the other. That's dimensional stability. Two is colorfastness. Colorfastness to whatever you set the standard. In machine washing, for example, you don't want color change, color bleeding, et cetera. So, performance is vital.

And performance is linked to fitness for purpose. For example, as just mentioned it's very important in apparel to measure dimension stability. That there was no noticeable change in dimensions or shape. Also, no problem with colorfastness when you throw your purple t-shirt in with some other colors that it doesn't bleed over the rest. But also, when it comes to colorfastness of certain products, it depends on fitness for purpose. For example, light fastness is very important for wool curtains. Fastness to light, so they don't fall to bleach. So, you have to think about fitness for purpose as well as the other standards you need to carry out.
Just to summarize, I define quality in three components: handfeel, appearance & performance.

Now if the performance is not met - your product goes in holes, or shrinks, or color bleeds - it's unlikely the consumer's going to go back and buy another. Again, that's the second sale. And a lot of products are bought by women. We mean no disrespect to women, but I mean a lot of men's products are bought by women. My wife's gone shopping in central Sydney, maybe 30 minutes ago. I'm sure she'll buy a new dress and bring me back a new pair of Merino wool socks, or something. Women talk more about clothing. Men just buy. They don't say, 'Oh, that's a beautiful Merino wool sweater!' But, women wear a sweater and they talk about it with others. So, that's very important on the quality side.

Identifying the Best Merino Wool Clothing at the Store

Libertad

In terms of fitness for purpose, handfeel, and faults in the fabric - How would you advise a customer in terms of the proper way to evaluate a wool garment they are interested in buying? For example, how can they determine whether one Merino wool shirt is higher quality to another? We use words like "handfeel" and "softness," but everybody's fingers are different. How would you educate somebody?

Jimmy Jackson

When it comes to handfeel and softness, it is really about comfort. Especially for next-to-skin products. It doesn't matter for chunky wool sweaters where you normally have a shirt between the skin and sweater. But, for next-to-skin Merino wool shirts, handfeel, or comfort, is very important.

 

Top quality Merino wool clothing balances performance with comfort as shown on this image of a scale.

 

When I was at Woolmark/AWI, we commissioned a project to develop a test instrument that would actually measure comfort. One of the laboratories in Australia got this machine called a "Comfort Meter." And every year some of the brands will send in their Merino wool clothing for testing even though they're making the same products with the same fabric as they did the previous year. Then I interpret the results and then they use these results in their marketing. So, we take a scientific result and put it into layman's terms which a consumer can understand.

So, it'll come out in a percentage. 'This Merino wool shirt is in the top 5% [of comfort],' for example. Because we're always going to get the odd consumer, right? Even if it was possible to make a shirt from 5 micron, there's always going to be a consumer complaint. 'It itches,' or, 'I got an allergy,' or whatever, but there are actually very few complaints. I did one Merino garment for the German supermarket, Aldi. They do a lot of Merino wool clothing now. We did the marketing for them and they sold 145,000 garments in one day and we only got four complaints. That's pretty good!

Libertad

How can a customer accurately evaluate a garment? A Merino wool shirt, for example? How can they identify faults, or any indication of lower quality?

Jimmy Jackson

Well, it depends on the extent of the fault. Obviously, if it has holes in it to start with, they're going to see it. You can hold it up to the light. When I go to factories, the first thing I do is hold the garment, in the absence of doing any tests, I take a quick look holding it against the light and check the degree of thick and thin places. There's always going to be some variation in wool. We can actually measure that. The yarn regularity is called "U%." So, the higher the percentage, the more irregular the yarn is. Every wool spinner measures this.

Libertad

That's the thick and thin distribution you see when you hold Merino wool fabric up to the light, right?

Jimmy Jackson

Yeah. There's a machine, it's been around for ages, but it's really sophisticated. It was invented by a company in Switzerland called Oster. You send the wool yarn through this machine. 1,000 or 5,000 meters, whatever. And if will tell us the number of thick places, the number of thin places. It also does a calculation on the percentage coefficient of variation, which we call "irregularity," which is known as "U” percent. Now the U stands for a German word, which I can't remember or pronounce. When I was young, one of the best training courses I ever went on was to this company because we use this in the wool factories. Not only will it tell us the faults in the yarn, but it can even tell us which specific machine in the factory the yarn came from.

Libertad

When I was first developing the fabric that would eventually be used in the Libertad Merino Wool Travel Shirt, there was this streakiness caused by the thick and thin yarn variations with uneven distribution. To solve the issue, we moved to compact spinning. Compact spinning refers to yarn manufacturing, correct? And not weaving or knitting. Is that right?

Jimmy Jackson

Yes, yarn manufacturing. In layman's terms, there's a little scroll roller on the spinning machine. So, as the yarn is being formed, it basically tucks the fibers in. You know, wool yarns are quite hairy under normal spinning. Actually, this scroll roller tucks the protruding fibers back into the yarn. So, you get a much cleaner yarn and a smoother surface. It also has some impact on the wear performance.

Libertad

In what way is the wear performance affected by compact spun yarns?

Jimmy Jackson

It's more of an issue on knitted products (e.g. Merino wool t-shirts & polos) because there is less twist in the yarn which means that it is easier for the fibers to come out and form these little balls known as pills. But, on a woven fabric, to a lesser extent, the fabric becomes a little bit hairy. It looks secondhand, if you like. So, compact spinning reduces that possibility.

Why Do Some Merino Wool Shirts Get Holes?

Libertad

Perhaps the most prevalent complaint about Merino wool shirts is the tendency to develop holes which can appear even after the first wear. I don't know if you are familiar with Reddit, but in their forums there's a very active, ongoing conversation about Merino wool clothing. For these customer's, durability is the primary measure of Merino quality which makes complete sense. Can you talk about why some Merino t-shirts will develop holes so quickly?

Jimmy Jackson

First, I would say that we don't get too many complaints today compared to years ago. But, it still remains the biggest issue. As I mentioned, I work for Merino wool fabric producers that supply casual and sports garments to brands around the world. We have a lot of customers in the US. Yeah. First of all, it could be a fault that's already in the garment. It could be a weak part in the yarn. It might not yet be broken until you put it on and start stretching and moving. So, it could be a fault in the yarn, but the leading manufacturers really do all the testing before they release that yarn. So, it has become less and less of an issue. But, the yarn could get damaged during the knitting from a needle that's blunt or bent and that weak part makes its way into the completed garment. But, that tends to be periodic. Because if you think about knitting - when you get holes - you tend to get them in a line. So, if there's a broken needle there's usually an identifiable line in the fabric that is faulty and can be quality checked.

But, the biggest issue we have today in terms of holes is related to detergents. By the way, we have to remember that these fine Merino wool clothing items are composed of delicate fibers. And the issue shows up particularly when people soak their clothes. We sell a lot of Merino wool base layers and underwear. If they get stained, customers tend to fill a bucket with warm water and detergent and soak the garment. The first problem is when you use a powder detergent.

 

Don't use powder detergents to wash Merino wool clothing.

 

Powder detergents don't dissolve so well. So, you get white spots of detergent on the garment which eats away at the fiber. It weakens the fiber, the yarn. When you first wash and rinse it you might not notice, but you've got some weak spots now. Then when you start to wear it and stretch, a hole appears. So, number one: It's better to use a liquid detergent.

When I was a young technician at Woolmark, I would analyze customer complaints together with the testing department. And we used to get a lot of complaints about wool underwear in the UK. We had 300 times more complaints from UK customers than we had from German customers, even though the population was more or less the same. We worked out that in the UK, 95% of the market was using powdered detergents. But, in Germany it was about 95% liquid detergents. Also, wool is delicate, so we want a liquid, neutral detergent. Neutral pH because wool does not like alkalies.

It's very good with acids. No problem. It's the reverse of cotton, but wool doesn't like alkalies. Now, the heavy duty detergents, industrial detergents, are pH 9 - highly alkali. When I was at Woolmark years ago, I used to work with Procter & Gamble. I'd go to Cincinnati where they had an unbelievable science team. They taught me so much about detergents and they had about 26,000 recipes. You know, it was unbelievable. We did a lot of work with them also with a washing machine. I used to work with Whirlpool near Chicago and I learned so much from these guys.

But as I say, the first possible cause for yarn weakness and holes is a manufacturing fault and the second is detergent. The third possible reason is moth damage.

Just back to detergents, a couple of more things. A lot of detergents contain enzymes. These enzymes are put in as a mixture. One of the enzymes is called a protease which is designed to dissolve proteins which comes in handy if you get an egg stain which is a protein, the yellow of an egg. But, the problem is that wool is also a protein. So, it eats the wool. I often say to retailers that enzymes are like a little Pacman eating the Merino. So, I advise all our customers on care labeling.

Where is the Best Merino Wool Clothing Made?

Libertad

I think this is a good place to start talking about making Merino wool clothing in China because there is a perception that whatever comes from China is of inferior quality. But, I've heard you say that China now produces wool fabric on the level of anyone else, including Italy. Can you talk about what they have done to increase the quality?

Jimmy Jackson

I think I'm in a good position to explain China because I first went there in 1981. When I started work in 1970, I was a 16 year old wool technician for Woolmark. At that time, there were five main countries in the world that manufactured 90% of all the wool products. The UK was the first; they started in the industrial revolution. That's why I'm in wool because I come from Yorkshire, England near the city of Bradford, which was called "The Wool City." And they used to process 50% of all the world's wool. Not just Australia's wool, but US wool, Argentina's, The Falklands, everywhere.

But as I said, there were five main countries who were the big wool textile producers: UK, France, Italy, Germany and Japan. Eventually, those countries became too expensive with globalization and the advent of corporations like The Gap corporation and other mass retail, et cetera, it got too expensive. So in the 1980's, the industry started to move to two main countries: South Korea and Taiwan. In the 80's, everything was made in Taiwan and then they became too expensive. So in the 90's, everyone started to move to China.

When I first went to China in 1981, and the few years following, I went on a delegation with the Australian government. They saw the potential in China because of the number of people there, et cetera. It was very slow; I think we only had one meeting per week. But, what the Australian government did was to make a proposal to give the Chinese government credit on wool supply. And they sent me along to make a lecture on something technical and try to identify which products for the Chinese market we should concentrate on in that period. In those days, there was no retail in China as we know it now. So, we concentrated on two products. One was underwear because the Chinese needed to keep warm because from Shanghai and below, there was no central heating. The other product was knitting yarns.

So, as part of this contract between the Australian government and China, they agreed that we would send a football team of technical consultants and advisors, including myself. So we get going to China about every three months for three week at a time. I was the expert on easy care wool and finishing. There was an expert on raw wool. A friend of mine was a spinner and the list goes on. We were a collection of English, Germans and Italians. We had a lot of fun at the same time.

But, when we first started there were so many challenges because the Chinese had only known one type of wool to that point and it was about 23 to 24 micron that was used to make everything. Whether it was a men's suit, or underwear or whatever. They just made it from the same wool. But in communist times, it was difficult to buy stuff, so nobody complained.

For me to start with, it was a teaching job. Bringing in the infrastructure; I persuaded Western chemical companies to send trial samples of chemicals free of charge; waxes free of charge; everything free of charge. And I had them, and the textile machinery companies, come with us on tours because they wanted to know first hand the potential of going forward in China with chemicals and machinery.

We also took Chinese delegations around the world. We brought them to Australia to learn about wool. How to buy wool; the different kinds of wool, etc. I also took delegations on tours of Europe. Italy, the UK, places like that. Also at that time, there were very strong universities. One of the best was Leeds University. Many Chinese students go there to earn a master's degree in textile technology for four or five years.

It didn't happen overnight, but over the period of 20 years, starting in the early 90's, it really started to grow. Sure, there were some dodgy companies in those days. You might buy a 100% wool sweater and then it turned out it was made from acrylic or something else. But, Woolmark started to separate them and categorize them as A, B and C, very simply. So we focused on the "A" companies. They might not have had the best equipment, but the aptitude and attitude toward learning was top level. So, that's what we did.

Then the infrastructure started growing. The textile chemical companies saw the potential in wool and started factories in China through joint ventures. Same with textile machinery.

We also worked with universities and institutes in China to teach them about wool. For example, I set up a knitwear development center close to Shanghai. And today, I'm the deputy director of the center as well as the deputy director of another textile Institute.

So, we did a lot of training and then as the Chinese started to make money - I mean they started off making cheap garments, low costs, sometimes copies - the Chinese government, particularly in the early 2000's, came out with an initiative for innovation and training. As the companies became richer, they invested, not just in new equipment, but they invested in 'know-how.' As I mentioned earlier today, I work for four Chinese manufacturers. They pay me for the know-how. I train the staff. I help them in all sorts of things. But also, in some of the companies I work with, there are 3-4 of the foreign experts. We've got Italian designers in each one; German engineers; people from Belgium. And when I go to other companies that I don't work with, they're tripping over all the engineers from Europe. So, they've actually paid for know-how. I mean, in China now they've got the support infrastructure. 85% of all the world's wool is bought by China and processed in China. 85%! Argentinian wool, Uruguayan wool. Every type of wool from all over the world. The only wool they don't buy is US wool. But, China processes the US wool and sends it back to the US for use in the military mainly.

Libertad

The US actually ships its own wool for uniforms to China to be processed? And then it comes back?

Jimmy Jackson

Some of it, yes. Because there is only one processing plant left in the US which I set up many years ago. It's down in a little town with one traffic light. It's called Jamestown and located about one hour from Myrtle beach in South Carolina. North of Charleston. I taught them wool processing and they taught me how to sound like a turkey for the turkey shoot. That plant is still going, but the quality and, you know, they haven't invested in it, so it's limited.

One thing that is strong in the US is sock manufacturing. The reason why socks work in the US is because you don't need much labor. You can run a lot of sock machines with one person. It's mostly automated today.

When it comes to garment making, there's the cutting, sewing and everything. It's quite labor intensive. The problem for the US is the same problem we have in Australia - labor cost is expensive. And secondly, you can't find the skilled workers anymore. Young people don't want to work in the textile factory.

But, in China today the leading companies have the state of the art equipment and very skilled people. Every year, they send around 25 million students to study overseas. They're not all studying textiles. But, I know that Leeds university, one of the leaders in the field, has a Chinese department and a Chinese liaison officer who looks after all the Chinese students.

When I was at Woolmark and I wanted Chinese staff, I contacted the university looking to interview anybody graduating. Because not only did I get a Chinese hire with a master's degree in textile technology, but I also got an employee that could speak English and can bridge the gap between the Western mentality and the Eastern mentality because they'd spent four or five years in the UK.

But as I said, today the companies in China can produce the best wool fabric in the world. Now, the only thing that they don't have is the branding and the heritage when it comes to marketing. In terms of quality, as I mentioned, as good as anybody. As good as UK fabrics, Italian fabric, and so on.

What they don't have is the heritage. Some knitters in England were established in 1776 or something. And so they're buying the heritage. One company I work for in China that is big in Merino wool yarn purchased a famous Scottish company that produces woolen yarns for high-end cashmere and also lambswool yarns. That company was established more than 150 years ago.

The organic growth for the Chinese is coming in their domestic market. Some of the emerging Chinese brands in the sports outdoor sector, one is Li-Ning. Li-Ning is like the Nike of China. They sponsored gold medal winning athletes at the Olympics, so they're very famous. They are very strong in women's wear. Now the Chinese tend to be very nationalistic and since Donald Trump's been in power the last four years, they've become even more nationalistic. According to a recent survey, 65% of Chinese citizens now only want to buy from Chinese brands.
10 -20 years ago, it was very different. Everybody wanted to buy a Gucci or a Fendi or whatever. They even left the label on the outside of the jacket as they walked around to show it was an Armani suit. You don't really see that anymore. A lot of the young people are educated in the United States, England or Australia and they aren't into showing off that they're rich. They are more sophisticated consumers.

So I can guarantee the companies I work for are world-class. And something else important in the wool world right now is that China is the only place where you get new Merino wool fabric innovations.

And it's not just me focusing on China. Everybody in the world is focusing on them. People that want to sell wool; textile chemical companies; the textile machinery companies. The best chemical companies in the world were from Germany and Switzerland. They're all established in China now in the textile areas. Not only for manufacturing, but for R&D as well. And also a lot of Chinese staff who work for them were sent to Germany at the headquarters to work for a year or two. It may have taken them more than 20 years to get where they are today, but they are definitely the world's leaders now.

There are a lot of companies that are worried about the growth of China and want to move back to the US, or Europe or Australia. Or, they want to look at Vietnam and Cambodia. Well, first of all, Australia, is still expensive. The last report I saw about the cost of labor in the textile and footwear industry in Australia was 55 AUD per hour. That includes pensions, etc. But, compare that to $800 a month in China. It has gone up a lot. But, the key thing is the know-how, not just the labor costs. There are only a few people like me left around in Australia and I'm too old to spend months and months at the factories like I used to. So, the only possibility is to use Chinese technicians.

I had a client want to source some of their high volume Merino wool clothing away from China. So, we looked at a factory in Cambodia. But, their equipment was mainly just producing cotton underwear. So, to do Merino wool clothing, we had to send the yarn and fabric there. But more importantly, we had to send Chinese technicians. They had to stay from the start to the end of production, just to walk everything through. The cotton, or synthetic technicians in Cambodia don't know how to work with wool. Knitting and weaving is basically the same, but everything else is different. Dying, finishing, etc. Completely different. Every industry has it evolved at different times and Chinese expertise in this area is a natural progression of the industry.

Merino Wool vs Merino Wool: Where Does the Best Raw Merino Come From?

 

Two Merino sheep. Where does the best raw Merino wool come from?

 

Libertad

There is a perception, or belief, in the marketplace that there is some kind of intrinsic quality to the wool at the raw wool level that makes one wool fiber higher quality than another. For example, some brands lead customers to believe that New Zealand Merino wool is better than that from Australia. And one breed of sheep is better than a different breed. And/or, this Merino sheep farm is better than some other. However, a version of your "fitness to purpose" is really what I've tried to communicate to my customers when evaluating quality. Because the yarn in our Merino wool button-ups is 18-18.5 micron. Whereas a lot of other Merino button-up shirts out there are 17.5 micron. And I tell them that Libertad's wrinkle resistance is better and you can't feel the difference - it's too fine and it was processed by a high quality wool mill. I could have chosen 17.5 micron yarn, but I had a goal that I wanted to achieve - to have the best wrinkle resistance in the market. Our Merino wool travel shirts feel fantastic, look upscale - customers always remark that it's nicer than they thought it would be - but there is persistent marketing by brands that lower micron equals higher quality. It's not really true, but it gets adopted by those without much experience with Merino.

Jimmy Jackson

No. Once again it's back to fitness for purpose, like you said. It depends on what you're making. You can't say that one wool, generally speaking, is better than another wool because it depends what you're going to make. For example, in Australia, you see the biggest amount of fine apparel types of Merino wool in the world. It ranges from about 12 micron to about 23 micron. But, if you were making a wool carpet, Australian wool is lousy because it's too delicate. So, the wools that are used mainly in carpets are New Zealand and British wools. Most New Zealand wool tends to be of coarse micron. There's a bit of Merino there, but 90% is coarse micron. And the reason for that is that most of the sheep in New Zealand are bred for meat, for lamb.

By contrast, in Australia most of the sheep are bred for wool. Now, generally speaking, a sheep bred for wool produces lousy meat. It's tough. Mutton, basically. When the sheep gets old, about six or seven years old, the wool starts to deteriorate, it's no longer viable. Usually, at that point, the meat is sold to the Middle East and India for things like curries. You need a tough meat when you're cooking in a casserole or a curry where you have to simmer it for two hours. British wool is used in carpets mainly, but also for the chunky-type fishermen sweaters. It purely depends on what you're making.

I must send you a little diagram I made 30 years ago. It shows a weighing scale; a balance. It illustrates performance versus softness. And again, it depends on what you make and its fitness for purpose. I think you were right to select that micron for the Libertad travel shirts because you're selling menswear and men like their fabric to be a bit more robust. It's a travel item which you don't have to worry about as well. But, if you made it from too fine a micron, it might feel softer when you first buy it, but it'll fall down on the wear performance.

If you made it out of 20 micron, the handle would've been a little bit too coarse. So, you wouldn't have gotten that first sale. You have to remember the three components of quality wool and balance. It's the same with Merino wool socks. The Italians used to make socks out of 17.5 micron yarn, but they'd only last for about two wears. So, if you look at the Merino wool sock market today, the main volume is in the 21.5 - 24 micron range. Because when people go hiking, they want a robust, good wear-performing sock. So, you know, once again it goes back to "fitness for purpose."

Is Single Origin Merino Wool Clothing Higher Quality?

Libertad

Is single origin Merino wool clothing higher quality?

Jimmy Jackson

If you go for single origin Merino wool clothing, it's very difficult, for a number of reasons, to actually have a true single source. First of all, there might not be enough volume to have a single origin Merino wool product. Yeah. There are a lot of Merino wool growers in Australia, but most of them are quite small. When I come to the US, it's funny because some of the big brands think that Australia is like the Costco of Merino wool. Like we have mountains of every type of wool available 24/87, you know? But, that's not the reality. Even if you find a single source that meets the volume requirement, then you need the right technical specifications for the fiber. And not just in terms of micron, but also length, yield, etc.

And then the other problem is that shearing, generally speaking, takes place once a year. A few growers are doing it now every six months, or every nine months. But, 95%, let's say, do it once a year. As soon as the farmers shear the Merino sheep, they either send it to auction, or try to sell it as soon as possible, so they get a check in the bank.

 

Sheared Merino sheep

 

So, you've got to work out the timing. That's what I do with a lot of brands. I ask them, "What type of product do you want to make?' Once they tell me the type of product, whether it's a Merino wool shirt, underwear, whatever...and the market segment they are targeting. Then I know what type of Merino wool they need to use and I can also calculate the yield. Yeah. I know manufacturing yields and I know the greasy wool yields. So, they might say, 'We need a thousand kilos of yarn to make these Merino wool shirts,' or I'll tell them. But, that equates to maybe 1,400 kilos of greasy wool we have to buy. Then we've got to know the timing. So I ask the customers, 'When do you want the shipment to be delivered in Norway?' for example. Then I've got to work backwards - all the shipping, the production times, etc. A lot to take into account and manage over the course of months. Many things. It's a bit like winning the lottery - You've got to tee everything up properly for it to work. It's very difficult. It's easier if we do it from a region or use a lead farm.

Also, Merino wool is variable. It's not like synthetic fiber where you set the machine and it comes out at the same diameter. Every Merino wool fiber is slightly different. And it also depends on the environment. So for example, when there is a drought in Australia, wool tends to get finer. And vice versa. It's due to the nutrition. When it rains, it's green grass and the Merino sheep are well fed with highly nutritious grass which makes the wool a little bit coarser and vice versa. So, we've just finished the drought season due to El Niño, or whatever they call it. We're just entering the first year now and it's been raining like hell in Australia. So, for the next 10 years, we should be okay for water and a lot of green grass for the sheep to eat.

So, what I'm saying is that it's very, very difficult to have a single source because there are all these factors affecting the micron, staple length, etc. Usually, we have to blend to get the right specification for the yarn.

So, we set up supply chains. And what I've done over the last few years, because of the big interest in traceability, I've been going out to farms and establishing really good relationships with them. And it takes time. You can't just stop by for 30 minutes. Sometimes I stay there for a few days right on the farm, so they get to know me. I work with a lot of Chinese companies and a lot of farmers have never met a Chinese person in their life. They only read what's on the news, so they think China is a nation of dodgy people. In every society, there are a few bad people, but most people are good, you know?

So, traceability is possible and then there are also a lot of schemes today. A lot of traceability schemes. There are probably about ten on the go. The most comprehensive one is the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS). That's the only scheme with audits all the way through. Not only do they audit the farm, a very intensive audit about animal welfare, land management, et cetera, et cetera. But, it also monitors the entire supply chain. So, the manufacturers have to be accredited and they get audited. The downside is that it's expensive. Auditing costs a lot of money.

And secondly, the amount of Merino wool available, it's starting to build back up now, we've managed to acquire quite a bit and convert that into standard yarn supply. But, we still don't have the economies of scale in manufacturing. To scour, I don't know whether you've seen a scouring machine that cleans the wool, but they're massive. And ideally, the average wool top maker will maybe put through fifty tones. Now the setting up of the machine, the maintenance, and then finishing up and cleaning is the same time whether you're doing one ton or fifty tons. So, we haven't got the economy of scale. We tend to do about five to ten tons at the moment.




Kyle Barraclough
Kyle Barraclough

Author

Founder, Libertad Apparel



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