Wool samples from different breeds of sheep. PHOTO/FILE

GIANINA SCHWANECKE

It’s been a difficult time for many of the country’s wool producers – crossbred coarse wool prices remain at a ten year low currently fetching between $3 and $3.60 per kilogram, and the land traditionally used to farm sheep is under threat from afforestation.

But Masterton resident, Tony Lawrence says there’s still hope for Kiwi wool producers.

Lawrence has been involved in the wool research industry for more than 30 years and remains an active life member of the Wool Research Organisation of New Zealand [WRONZ].

“The factor at the root of the problem is not forestry subsidies and the current Government’s wild promises on tree planting.

“It’s the almost total collapse of the crossbred wool price and the fact that hill country sheep and cattle farming is not a viable proposition for most when producing meat alone.”

He said many farmers don’t see a future for wool production and that made it increasingly attractive to plant their land up in forestry.

“Sheep farming is an expensive operation,” he said.

Following the collapse of wool prices at the end of the 1980s, he said the industry “had gone from bad to worse” and new uses for crossbred wool needed to be explored.

In recent years, coarse wool’s use has been limited and purposed mostly for wool carpet creation.

Then last October, researchers at Lincoln Agritech Ltd announced a breakthrough in coarse wool deconstruction, paving the way for new uses and the development of new materials.

The seven-year research project led by Dr Garth Carnaby, has enabled researchers to break the wool down into its cellular components, comprising of tiny particles in the 5-10-micron range — though not wool, they contain wool attributes.

“We are on the cusp of a major scientific breakthrough on the usage of all wool and in particular crossbred wool stronger than 32 microns,” Lawrence said.

These natural attributes would “revolutionise” the cosmetic industry, he said.

“Our tests for the huge cosmetic industry to date show that the wool derivative base material will have particles many times finer than the finest ceramic base.

“It will also retain wool’s ability to absorb and retain moisture and sanitising ability.”

He said there was also potential for the wool derivative to be used in the medical and domestic protective mask filter industry.

“That’s another huge market. We don’t really know the extent of it even.”

One of the most exciting aspects of the research project, was the ability to produce a spinning “dope”, and wet spin a nylon-infused yarn as fine as 10 microns.

“That’s finer than possum and cashmere,” Lawrence exclaimed. “I’ve felt the fabric and it’s incredible.”

“This could be the renaissance of the strong wool industry.”

Wool Research Organisation of New Zealand WRONZ chairperson Derrick Milton agreed.

“Successfully deconstructing coarse wool to create new materials is a breakthrough that has the potential to add huge value to the wool industry.

“Although scale and commercialisation is still some way off, WRONZ will work with its membership to maximise value for NZ wool growers and the country as a whole.”

Other exciting avenues for strong wool use are popping up around the country too.

A Tauranga surfboard shaper has developed a wool-based substance which can be used to replace fibreglass on a surfboard — Paul Barron made the discovery after accidently spilling resin on his wool sweater.

His innovation caught the eye of Firewire Surfboards, an internationally renowned sustainable surfboard company who aim to become zero-waste by 2050.

NZ Merino’s market development manager Hadleigh Smith sees a lot of potential in new wool substances like this.

“The wool used in these surfboards usually goes into carpets and rugs, but now we’ve found a whole new category to go into and we think this is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.