FIBRE 101: RWS WOOL
Wool is big business in Australia and in fact, Australia supplies almost all the wool used in high end wool apparel. So clearly we have the good stuff, but is it made in a good way? Read on for the ins and outs of Australian wool, rough edges and all.
Images kindly supplied by two of our RWS farms, Delatite in Victoria and Bibaringa in NSW.
Fibre 101 : RWS Wool
First, some data. Wool is one of Australia’s greatest export prides. Australia is the world's leading producer of wool with over 1/4 of world’s entire wool supply coming from Australia. Don’t think for one minute that we keep it onshore though, 98% is exported, predominantly to China. This is partly due to the fact that Australia has a greatly reduced capacity to scour (clean) the wool, while it has completely lost the capability to spin wool at a commercial level. We do however, have the capability to knit and weave wool commercially, so sometimes wool that was grown here, is exported for spinning before being imported back again for knitting or weaving. Dizzying.
Let's zoom out just for a moment because it's important to keep in mind that wool makes up less than 1% of the total fibres used in textiles each year. Compare that to cotton (24%) and polyester (51%) which is the world's most commonly used fibre (Textile Exchange Preferred Fiber Report 2019). Even though wool is a minuscule portion of the world's total fibre makeup, to Aussies it’s big business and wool has an important place in the global fibre market.
Australia is also the leader in fine wool for high end apparel with 90% of world's wool supply for premium apparel coming from Australian merino sheep. Merino wool is known particularly for its super fine quality. Wool fibre is made up of the protein keratin but it's much finer than any human hair. Measured in microns, a human hair diameter is 50-100 microns while a merino fibre is under 22 microns. That's why merino wool is particularly soft and also versatile. It's also temperature regulating and may provide many other benefits to the wearer, especially those with allergies or skin conditions.
Bibaringa Wool Farm, NSW
According to Woolmark in 2021, Australia is home to some 60,000 woolgrowers and 68 million sheep which far outnumber the people here. While it should be easy to source wool from this bountiful nation of wool growing, not all sheep farms are made equal. Some are doing a lot of work to ensure ethical treatment of their flock and move past archaic practises that we now have the technology and expertise to at least begin to eliminate. While I can recognise the unique challenges the Australian climate poses to sheep farming, namely huge blowfly populations exacerbated by our hot summers that result in "flystrike" – there are front runner farms that are raising the bar on animal welfare, soil management, land protection and biodiversity right now.
Enter the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS), rolled out by Textile Exchange in order to provide a benchmark for wool growing standards across the globe. Developed with leading animal welfare experts and farmers, the RWS was also created to address land management, co-habitation, soil health, biodiversity and social welfare of workers. Probably its most controversial requirement however, if only for Australian farmers, is the prohibition of mulesing. As mentioned earlier, the extreme Australian climate means that sheep here are vulnerable to flystrike. Not for the faint hearted, flystrike occurs when the blowfly lay eggs in the moist wrinkles and fold of the lamb's skin around the tail and breech. When the eggs hatch, the larvae feed off the sheep's flesh which can be fatal if left untreated.
The way Aussie farmers have eased flystrike since the 1930s is by cutting off the skin around the tail and breech leaving taught scar tissue behind, making that area less desirable to the blowfly. This “cutting” is called mulesing and on a pain level is similar to castration for the sheep. Many sheep do not receive painkillers or anaesthetic during the mulesing process and the process has been rejected by most countries around the world. Since 2020, the Victorian government mandated pain relief administration as well as other integrated flystrike management when performing mulesing in the state.
It's important to understand that other countries don't produce the volume Australia does, nor do they have the same intensity of flystrike. So admittedly it’s a much more challenging issue for Australian farmers but by no means is it impossible to avoid – read on.
Delatite Farm - Merino Sheep, VIC.
There was initial promise to remove this practise when the Australian wool industry declared they would ban mulesing by 2010, but they never kept that promise. Several farms have voluntarily gone mulesing free, others are transitioning, while others still practise it, some with and some without painkillers. There are other solutions to reduce flystrike, such as breeding out the genetic traits (wooly, wrinkly bums) that attract the flies, vaccinating the sheep from the blowflies and more frequent crutching and inspection of the sheep (requiring more human labour, which can be problematic).
Currently (2021), there are around 200 farms that have not only ceased mulesing, but have also become RWS (Responsible Wool Standard) certified. Like with any certifications, there are always limitations around auditing and none are perfect and all encompassing in every way, but as a benchmark for wool, this is the standard we are looking to. At A.BCH we think wool is a very special fibre to be treasured, loved and cared for, and we treat our sourcing process the same way. In fact it's taken us four years to release our first wool products as we searched for the best farmers and suppliers to work with.
Delatite Wool Farm, VIC.
So here is our approach to working with wool now and going forward.
We will localise as much as possible, working directly with small Australian farms that are RWS certified and employing regenerative farming practises. This is done through wool brokers Fox & Lillie, who have been at the forefront of the RWS here in Australia. The wool we work with is almost totally single origin. That's kind of a big deal in supply chains these days. Our wool comes from 10 small farms across New South Wales and Victoria, facilitated by Fox & Lillie. Each of these farms is certified by the Responsible Wool Standard, which means higher standards across animal welfare, land, soil and biodiversity management and human welfare too. It also means ZERO mulesing. After the sheep are shorn (once per year) they get to live a pretty free range life. The wool (called "greasy wool") is purchased and combined from the 10 farms and sent to China - as previously mentioned, this is because we have lost the ability to do the full processing ourselves in Australia (for now). The greasy wool is scoured and spun by Xin’ao in China, but kept seperate from all the other wool, in order to ensure the chain of custody is maintained and the RWS certification. The spun yarns are then returned to Victoria, Australia to be knitted into a fine rib fabric by leading Australian master knitter. The fabrics are then kept undyed or are dyed locally. Stay tuned for more progress on this in the future, our work is never done!
Our wool is never going to be mass produced. In fact any time we choose to release a wool product you can be sure it will have a real and verifiable story we can get behind on how it came to be, rough edges and all because that's just the reality of this industry. There are three ways we will work with wool to ensure it remains as special as it should be.
1. Single Origin
2. Traceable surplus/deadstock
For our first release we begin with a humble yet classic, thermal t-shirt – the A.34. It's super limited edition because the fabric was sourced from our master knitter's warehouse. The fabric is all "deadstock" or as we like to more accurately call it – surplus. But purchasing surplus stock doesn't give us a free pass on sustainability, we've dug deep to understand the supply chain behind it, and are excited to show you even more about this story as we visit one of the farms it came from in the coming weeks.
We're hyper aware that wool can be controversial, especially within a business like ours that's overwhelmingly plant based in our material makeup. We understand that a portion of our customers are vegan and won't be interested in or happy about our wool products, because despite our efforts in sourcing, they are still derived from an animal product. We will always be transparent around what products are 100% plant based, and which are not. At A.BCH we do believe wool is an important fibre for us to work with so we can champion how to do it right and I'm so excited to be able to launch our first range of wool pieces to you.