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

6 thoughts on “The Wool Revolution

    1. Teri Post author

      It is isn’t it?!! I confess the biker jacket and hot pants is my favourite but I can’t imagine any situation where I would be brave enough to wear it 🙂

  1. Karen Lane

    Thanks for these images Teri, you are so lucky to have been able to visit this exhibition! I also 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. Teri Post author

      The carpet in schools argument should be a no-brainer, if they are going to force the schools to all use the same carpet to bring the costs down, surely locally sourced wool is the obvious choice?!!

      1. Beth Pottinger-Hockings

        I’m sorry I didn’t get to see the exhibition & also love the hot pants Teri, I couldn’t agree more being a no brainer! I shake my head at short term thinking sometimes! As Wool Impact Ltd chief executive Andy Caughey said after the a government-funded initiative made the decision to install synthetic carpet in more than 600 rural schools throughout New Zealand. the logic behind the ministry’s decision “just doesn’t make sense”: “The virtues of wool needs to be spelt out to future decision-makers of carpeting, be it for schools, offices or for individuals. We’ve got to look at the value equation in a much greater way than just looking at cost; it’s the environmental factors, the rural communities and the educational side of raising our kids in a safe, clean and healthy environment.”

        For far too long, nylon/synthetic carpet has been seen as better because it was/is cheaper, lasts longer & doesn’t fade… I think with the greater awareness on environmental impact & focus on sustainability, this is starting to change, hopefully before our strong wool industry has gone down the gurgler! Bremwoth switching back to all wool carpets, more active wool initiatives & Liz’s influence will all be helpful.

        1. Teri Post author

          I couldn’t agree more Beth – you are speaking to the converted here! 🙂 I believe there needs to be a substantial tax on sales of newly synthesised plastics, only then will people who’s bottom line is purely based on finances see the benefits of using natural or recycled materials in all aspects of our lives.


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