Developing wool products for domestic and international markets.
A wool manufacturing plant in Waikato is helping a Gisborne wool company to provide an environmentally sustainable alternative to synthetics. The family-owned business, Allwool Limited (trading as Wisewool) has bought a wool manufacturing plant at Te Poi in Eastern Waikato, and set it up to produce and supply natural woollen ingredients to the New Zealand furniture market, with ambitions to explore international options, particularly North America.
Wisewool was founded in 2021 by the Gisborne-based Hansen and Urquhart-Hay families which have ‘lanolin running in their veins’. They can date their wool scouring, broking and buying heritage back to the late 1800s. With five generations of wool handling in the family, they are evangelical about re-educating the world on wool’s remarkable natural properties, while incentivising Kiwi wool growers to persevere with this natural super-fibre.
Wisewool’s acquisition of the plant is a stepping-stone for the owners to open a purpose-built facility in hometown Tairāwhiti, Gisborne. The business originated with William Henry (W.H) Smith more than a century ago. Smith started out in Gisborne clearing gorse but soon realised the value of the enormous sheep farms around the East Coast.
Settling by the Taruheru River at Hexton near Gisborne in 1894, he started the area’s first wool scour, sourcing wool from local stations, washing and drying it on the banks of the Taruheru and exporting to the United Kingdom to be sold at auction.
Angus Hansen, co-founder and operations manager at Wisewool, explains the Gisborne Wool Company has survived all sorts but had more soul-searching during the 2020 Covid lockdown, when CEO Henry Hansen – a descendant of W.H Smith – asked the family to think about ways to add value to the industry and the business.
In July 2021, Wisewool was born, supported by new staff (and family members) including Angus’ cousin Harry Urquhart-Hay, co-founder and responsible for sales and marketing, and Nicky Hansen, who heads up innovation and product development.
Initially working with Callaghan Innovation and the University of Otago’s textile department, Wisewool now crafts ‘buds’ (small clusters of tightly bound wool) that make for a highly resilient fill for furniture and upholstery, as well as the lighter, looser cloud-fill used in pillows, cushions and insulated clothing such as puffer jackets.
Using machinery imported from the United Kingdom, Wisewool developed material (called knops) that is engineered by intertwining wool fibres into tiny spring-like buds that enhance wool’s inherent bounce and resilience, while retaining the fibre’s natural resilience.
There are signs that the market is switching from synthetic ingredient products to wool, so Wisewool is focusing its marketing on upholstery, bedding, and soft-seating, says Harry.
The company also makes Wisewool Needle-Punched Blanketing – a versatile, tear resistant material used for internal padding in furniture upholstery and bedding – and Wisewool Buds, used for furniture and upholstery fill. Another product is Wisewool Cloud, a lighter loose-fill lending itself to use in pillows, cushions, mattresses and insulated apparel. Waste is kept to a minimum, with the use of an ‘opening’ machine used on offcuts of rolls, so the resulting wool fibres can be sent through the process once again.
Harry explains, “The fibre has great muscle memory and therefore it’s a wonderful replacement for feathers, foam and polyester in upholstery. Because we see it as such a miracle fibre, we really are targeting high-end, premium customers who want to replace synthetics with a natural fibre.”
These same customers are able to use the Wisewool story of sustainable farming and manufacturing to promote their own products – and to charge a premium for use of the ingredient.
They acknowledge it was fortunate for Wisewool that a lot of time and money went into setting up the Te Poi plant originally. “It came up for sale and it was in great working order, so we jumped at it. A lot of the machinery that’s been used for wool over the years hasn’t really changed, mainly because wool was such a valuable commodity back in the day. A lot of that machinery still works and is tried and tested”.
After making a small number of “tweaks” to commission the facility, Wisewool is now focusing on improvements to make the most of the characteristics of strong wool. “It kind of comes back to the wool itself; the different crossbred, the different length, the different micron. All of those factors make a different product.”
As the business grows, Wisewool plan to set up a large manufacturing facility in Tairāwhiti, catering to a lot larger volume, closer to its farmer suppliers. That production shift is probably two or three years away, Urquhart-Hay says. “Currently we collect millions of kilograms of wool and the only real market we have is exporting. The Gisborne port is in the process of planning a re-development so that you can export containers of product – and not just logs.”
Ministry for Primary Industries’ (MPI’s) Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures Fund (SFFFF) has recently committed $790,000 over three years to a research and development project with the goal of growing the market potential of the woollen knops and blanketing. A number of approaches to fibre preparation resulting in varieties of blends and assessment of performance for different end uses, environmental impacts, and in-market testing, as well as determining price points that will produce better returns for strong wool producers will all be considered over the next three years.