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Thursday, September 29, 2016

What is wool? Is wool just wool?

By Andrew Woods  |  Source: IWTO, AWEX, The Woolmark Company, ICS

Key points

  • Wool is an umbrella term for a range of fibres that come from sheep.
  • Wool can be differentiated by a whole range of specifications starting with breed, fibre diameter and staple length.
  • The uses for fibres under the name of wool range from carpet, through hand knitting yarns to all the different types of apparel.

2016-09-29 Wool Fig 1

2016-09-29 Wool Fig 2

2016-09-29 Wool Fig 3

In an address on the wool and sheep industries this week an overview of world wool production was given highlighting Australia as the main wool exporter with New Zealand the second main wool exporter. On the surface these facts are quite correct, however it prompted some thought about the use of “wool” as an umbrella term. This article takes a brief look at what the umbrella term “wool” encompasses.

The first way of looking at wool and its various forms is to break world wool production up by fibre diameter. Figure 1 extrapolates out and then combines IWTO estimates for national wool production during 2015-16 around the world. Keep in mind that the quality of the data collected by the IWTO varies, despite their very best efforts. Data from Australia, South Africa and Argentina is very good. It deteriorates from there.

The two peaks in production are clustered around merino wool on the left and carpet wool on the right, with mid-micron (known as crossbred in Australia) in the middle. During the past 25 years the merino production has declined relative to the carpet/broader micron production.

While Australia and New Zealand are the major wool exporters, it is must be noted that the average micron in Australia is 19-20 while in New Zealand it is 38-39. While both exports may be wool the Australian wool is going into apparel while the New Zealand wool is going into carpets.

Another way to parse wool production is by staple length. Figure 2 breaks up Australian wool production from 2015-16 by staple length. Traditionally the focus of the Australian (merino) production has been on worsted types that are around 90 mm length give or take 10-20 mm. The woollen system uses the shorter length lots.

Figure 3 is schematic originally developed by The Woolmark Company in the 1990s. It shows the range of production by micron by country from around the year 2000, with the possible end uses for wool of that fibre diameter shown above. Note that carpet wool is used in carpets and not blended into other areas (a rarity in a commodity that relies on blending to achieve consistent processing outcomes).

The point here is that “wool ain’t wool”. The differentiation of different types of wool begins on farm, with breeds shorn separately. Within the wool shed clip preparation is designed to allow processors flexibility when building consignments. The risk is that a “wool is wool” attitude encourages a “fair average quality” mentality where quality suffers due to a lack of care.

What does this mean?

There is a tendency to view wool as secondary to meat production in terms of value, something not necessarily supported by the outcome of analysis such as Holmes Sackett benchmarking. The risk inherent is seeing wool as of lesser importance is that due care is not taken in growing and preparing this commodity for sale. Wool is really an umbrella term for a range of fibres that come from sheep, and these fibres have a wide range of uses. The preparation and presentation of wool of wool by farmers is an important base for the supply chain to build consignments that meet their requirements in terms of processing performance.

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