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 Australia has 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
For our first surplus wool release we began 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.
First thing's 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 best standard out there for wool certification. 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 took us four years to release a wool product as we searched for the best way to approach it. Turns out the wool we decided to work with is a surplus fabric, that is, leftover from other brand's production, sitting dormant in a warehouse.
Delatite Wool Farm, VIC.
We thought we might be able to find a wool grower to work with, however industry standards are just so dicey and even with the RWS, we aren't sure it's quite enough to ensure the health and wellbeing of the sheep.
So until the industry shapes up its act and wool can be grown in a way that is kind and fair, here is our approach. We'll not work with virgin wool. What we will do is source surplus, deadstock or recycled wool, but even this should be from Australian farms that are Responsible Wool Standard certified and employing regenerative farming practises, which means higher standards across animal welfare, land, soil and biodiversity management and human welfare too. It also means ZERO mulesing. So, we'll ensure there is traceability in any wool we use, unless it has been mechanically recycled, in which case it is unlikely to have any traceability data.
Let's make one thing clear, any wool we work with is never going to be mass produced. In fact any time we choose to release a surplus 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.
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 surplus wool is an important fibre for us to work with in moderation so we can champion how to do it right.