Wilson & Dorset
Upscaling sheepskins at a Wanaka furnishings store.
Wanaka couple Amanda Dorset and Ben Wilson turn New Zealand sheepskins (traditionally thought of as a waste product of the sheep meat industry) into internationally acclaimed luxurious furnishings, sheepskin covered cushions and ‘stone’ sets – stackable floor cushions you can sit on, rest your head on or put your feet up on. They sell their products through the design-driven, Wanaka-based homewares business, Wilson & Dorset.
Keen fans of wool and its many qualities, and passionate about protecting the environment, Amanda and Ben have teamed up with another Kiwi innovator to replace synthetic fillings in products such as cushions and beanbags with a wool non-woven textile. At its recently commissioned processing plant in Te Poi, near Matamata, Wisewool processes strong wool into ‘buds’ and ‘clouds’, making the 100% natural and sustainable stuffing that now fills Wilson & Dorset products.
For the past 16 years Ben and Amanda have worked hard to develop their business into the success it is today, championing New Zealand grown wool at every step. However, they have been aware that the filling of their otherwise natural product range has comprised of 100 percent man-made synthetics derived from fossil fuels.
Describing their long-held enthusiasm for wool and its natural qualities as bordering on the obsessive, they felt that crafting natural wool products for a market of conscientious consumers, only to stuff the products with synthetic filling, was disingenuous and not walking their sustainability eco talk – and that more could be done to hero the wool being grown in this country.
Work is underway to develop a wool stuffing for Wilson & Dorset’s popular ‘plush shaggy bag’. Additional design considerations are due to the size of the bag and a need to ensure the filling remains evenly distributed and not too heavy.
Amanda says as people learn about the impact of manmade fibres on the planet there is rising demand for renewable, sustainable, and biodegradable alternatives that offer style, form, and functionality.
"We could no longer, in good conscience, continue filling our natural wool products with petrochemical based synthetics." Feathers could have been an equally natural alternative, but Amanda and Ben’s focus was wool, in particular strong wool, which makes up around 85 percent of New Zealand’s annual wool clip.
As well as avoiding importation of synthetic stuffing that once discarded ends up in landfill where it never breaks down, they note that wool is fully biodegradable. It also has thermoregulatory and anti-microbial properties, as well as being naturally flame-retardant – important considerations for domestic furnishings.
Amanda says her love of wool developed during the five years she marketed Icebreaker, the iconic New Zealand clothing brand. “I’m passionate about wool and what it can bring to our most intimate space, our homes. We are selling a product for a lifetime, and I get a lot out of engaging with customers who want a more natural product with less processing, and more tactile things in their lives.” Ben adds: “Today many people have concrete, wooden or tiled floors in their homes. Those clean lines are beautiful, but it’s nice to soften them”.
In addition to his focus on Wilson & Dorset, Ben is an export management consultant working with the Talley’s Group, a director of the Cromwell-based solar energy company Infinite Energy, and he consults to the Auskin Group which owns the Chinese-based tannery, where Wilson & Dorset skins are processed. The family tannery business near Beijing was set up in the 1990s by Ben’s father Robert Wilson, along with their technical director Leroy Parker, who now splits his time between Christchurch and China.
Their sheepskin products are made out of crossbreed sheepskins and sourced from around New Zealand, with the properties of specific breeds (such as fineness, length, and crimp of wool) being selected to suit the product.
Wilson & Dorset are proud to repurpose a by-product that has been traditionally considered ‘waste’. And in their factory in China, they are constantly refining their production processes to ensure there is the least impact on the environment possible, selling excess materials, recycling water, liquids and packaging and using solar energy where possible.