The Wool Revolution

The Wool Revolution

As avid wool enthusiasts (including a few shepherds) most of us are all too well aware that the cost of shearing a flock of sheep is rarely ever covered by the sale of the fleece. In fact the financial return on many fleeces is so poor, I know many farmers end up composting what should be a valuable and eco-friendly product.

Woven and felted wall hangings

Part of the problem is that many of these under-valued fleeces are typically at the coarser end of the spectrum, shorn from sheep bred for the meat industry. In some cases the situation is further compounded by farmers deliberately selecting sheep with coarser wools for their breeding program because their logic dictates, coarser wool = a heavier fleece per sheep and since wool is sold by weight, a heavier fleece = more $$$.

If, like me you make mostly wearables from wool, you probably see the fault in that logic, I know I value the lower micron wools far more, cheerfully paying a premium for them because they are less “scratchy”. However, this doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for the coarser wools too and as felt-makers and spinners perhaps we should not be so quick to dismiss them….

These coarser wools, also known as “strong wool”, have traditionally been used for various industrial applications that require padding that is fire resistant, for home insulation products, even the pads that piano hammers rest on.

In previous decades, one of the largest buyers of strong wools used to be the carpet industry, unfortunately the move towards synthetic carpets has seen the use of strong wools for carpets go into a steep decline. Currently there is a drive in New Zealand to support rural schools to replace their flooring with wool carpets, rather than the imported nylon carpet tiles the government wants them to use.

Large felted wall hanging

I fist met Liz Mitchell MNZM when she joined the Auckland Fun Felters (AFF), just a month or two after I did. Already a wool enthusiast, she was on a mission to discover new ways to use this fabulous, natural material and her enthusiastic interest quickly evolved into a dedicated promotion of strong wool.

Felt illuminated

Liz has had a very interesting textile career, as a fashion designer, with her own label, she was primarily focussed on hand-made couture and in 2005 was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the fashion industry and to this day she is one of the best known names in New Zealand fashion.

A series of large wet-felted vessels

In recent years Liz has expanded her repertoire to include working with architects and interior designers to use strong wools, still in their natural colours, for a mixture of wall hangings, rugs and soft furnishings. Her diversification from haute couture to interior design is beautifully documented in her current exhibition, “This Raw Material” on show at the Corban Estate Arts Centre in West Auckland.

This exhibition is open until 9 December 2023 and is well worth a visit, I particularly enjoyed the interactive room where you are encouraged to touch, feel, sit on and even smell the pieces. When was the last time you went an art exhibition where they encouraged you to sniff the exhibits?!! 🙂

Biker jacket and hot pants – Agate wool Jacquard

We were all very proud to hear Liz has secured a grant to set up a “Wool and Natural Fibres Textile Hub” in Auckland, which will serve as a hub for wool research, education and creative exploration. An endeavour I am very keen to support. She has also set up a Wool Revolution PledgeMe to raise funds to support the new Hub.

Winter White Wedding Dress – NZ wool felt
Detail on Wedding Dress

23 thoughts on “The Wool Revolution

  1. Thanks for these images Teri, you are so lucky to have been able to visit this exhibition! I love the biker jacket/hot pants combo and that stunning wedding dress.
    Let’s hope the schools get their way and are able to bin the synthetic flooring.

    1. It’s crazy isn’t it? The government only taking the financial costs into account, ignoring the environmental impact and the the boost to the NZ economy by using local materials and companies….

  2. This is so interesting Teri, thanks for telling us about it, and showing us the pictures of the Exhibition – that wedding dress is glorious.
    I wonder if Liz or anyone from her Wool and Natural Fibres Textile Hub has thought to contact The Prince’s Trust over here. I know that the King, when he was Prince Charles, was very interested in promoting the use of wool over unnatural fibres (and I’m sure he still is though now less able to actively promote it because of having to keep his mouth shut about “political” matters.)
    It may be that a grant would be available – worth a try?

    1. Hello Ann, Wonderful to connect with you and the Felting and Fiber Studio. I am a brand partner with Campaign for Wool NZ. I think I do not qualify for a grant from King Charles Trust, my age and experience count against me sadly.
      If your community could support my PledgeMe campaign raise funds for the Textile Hub Centre that will help our Wool Revolution grow.
      Warm regards,
      Liz Mitchell MNZN

    2. Hi Liz, I got the name of the charity wrong. The Prince’s Trust is now run by the Prince of Wales. What I should have referred to is The Campaign for Wool which is global and there is an NZ branch which you may already be aware of.
      Having looked at the website though it doesn’t appear to give out grants unfortunately.
      More power to your elbow, I hope that you are able to raise the funds you need.

  3. A very interesting article. As a small time sheep raiser, by the time you feed, sheer and process wool, it is definitely not a money maker. You have to do it for the love of the fiber. I have a few registered Wensleydales and here in New Mexico and I am now going to have to coat them. A couple of them have cholla cactus stuck in their coats… not good! My concern is going to be the lack of shearers here. It is a concern for all of us.

    1. Ouch – cactus in your fleece sounds painful!
      What does “coating” involve? Do the sheep get a lightweight jacket to wear? Sounds like you might need to learn to shear sheep! 🙂 The shearers here make it look very easy but I suspect you need to be pretty strong

  4. Very interesting exhibition Teri. I wish I could see it in person. The pieces are all wonderful and I have always enjoyed using medium to coarse wool but I don’t do wearables. I recently read a book that you might find interesting called “Unraveling” by Peggy Orenstein. It is a fun read but very well researched and gives a lot of facts about using wool, sustainable fashion etc.

    1. I thought I’d see if I could find this book in our library. Unfortunately they don’t have it under “Unraveling” or “Unravelling”, so I thought I’d try searching under the author’s name. Only 2 books came up; one was “Boys & sex : young men on hook-ups, love, porn, consent and navigating the new masculinity” and the other was “Girls & sex : navigating the complicated new landscape”. A bit off our subject I think. (I’m glad I’m not a teenager trying to cope with things these days!)

  5. Teri what a fascinating exhibition and able to smell things too….a bonus🤪
    The agate set and winter wedding dress are wonderful.

    It is so very sad that wool, a natural resource, is no longer valued but synthetics are! As one of the commenters above said ‘no shearers’, so traditional skills are diminishing too.

    Hooray for folk like Liz, I wish her success with her venture & hope she will be the protagonist we all need.

    1. I am hopeful that the tide is turning against synthetics, just last night there was another item on the NZ national news advocating the use of wool over synthetic materials – it gives me hope….

  6. Fantastic exhibit, Teri. Thanks for sharing it with us. You’re right, it’s a shame wool has been so much replaced by nylon – the cost to the planet is staggering, and knowing a natural resource is going to waste also makes my heart ache. I hope NZ can inspire other countries to start using wool again for carpets or other items, coarser fibres shouldn’t be so readily dismissed!

    1. That would be amazing wouldn’t it? Having NZ, the home of sheep (where we have 6 sheep for every human) leading the vanguard of the wool revolution! 🙂

  7. Looks alike a great exhibit. I love the clothes but the lights are great too. I like courser wools for things too, just not scarves and hats. great for slippers and carpets and baskets,

  8. So many great images. What an inspiring post. I hope wool continues to gain traction and we can put it to good use.

  9. What an interesting and talented lady Teri. Her work is stunning. I really can’t pick a favourite.

    This lack of appreciation of the wonders of wool seems to be a real issue in so many of the more economically developed countries. Ireland has a similar problem although steps are now being taken by the Irish wool community (farmers processors spinners etc) to raise the profile.

    There seems to be quite the disconnect between eco friendly/organic living and wool products in the general population. It is taking a long time to evolve.

  10. Thank you for sharing this story. Very interesting. Yet I wonder if spinners should focus on spinning wool from sheep raised specifically for their wool. The market share of synthetics continues to grow at a tremendous speed, and I wonder if the time has come to primarily support wool sheep breeders. If breeders don’t value their sheep’s fleece, is it fair to transfer this responsibility to spinners. Is it their role to try to enhance its value at the cost of their own interests? I’m thinking out loud here. But us women do have a history of being told to sacrifice our own interests, don’t we ?
    I also have 2 very basic questions : Is overgrazing in New Zealand an issue? Has the New Zealand livestock changed in recent years to increasingly focus on meat production?

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