Wool Textiles

November 2008
AgResearch Textile Science and Technology Section used to be the Wool Research Organisation of NZ (WRONZ), then Canesis Network, and then was bought 18 months ago by AgResearch. They have a staff of around 40 people.

One of their objectives is to ensure that NZ coarse wools maintain their place as a premium carpet fibre, that gets the price it should, and diversify into new uses for strong wools.

Dr Peter Ingham, manager of the section, says WRONZ had a long history of developing machinery to allow very even processing within a batch of wool so that the yarn at the beginning of the batch is identical to that coming out at the end.

New Zealand wool is virtually the only wool in the world that can be used for top-end carpets in pastel shades because of its freedom from black fibre and its good colour, and to achieve that we have to have the best processing sequence so that there is no colour variation because at the final stage when you are tufting up the yarn you do not want any different coloured bands along the carpet, he says.

One of the big developments was the Chemset plant, and the Chemset label has become a major sales point over the past five or six years. This has enabled huge expansion of the use of New Zealand wool yarns. Previously the UK was the main supplier of carpet yarns to the USA, but now it is New Zealand because of the quality. The Chemset machines are manufactured in Timaru and sold around the world.

Disposal of end-of-life carpets to avoid their going into landfill: The producers of nylon carpets in the USA have come up with recycling schemes, and although they are not always carried out commercially there has certainly been a lot of publicity about them. It is relatively easy to collect enough nylon carpets to make the processes economic but wool carpets are a fairly small percentage of the USA carpet market and they are thinly distributed.

AgResearch has developed some new uses for end-of-life carpets and is getting those up and running in the USA.

We have done a lot of work on the use of ground-up wool carpet as a fertiliser. Dry matter production from paddocks with the ground-up carpet in it was 60 - 80% greater than the control. Over the summer in Canterbury we were getting 120 % increase in dry matter production, says Dr Ingham.

It is a nice grass to grass story. Wool has quite a bit of nitrogen and so it is a slow release nitrogen fertiliser with moisture holding capabilities, and the doubling of dry matter over the Canterbury summer was due to the fact that it holds moisture.

Trials were completed last year.

Intact carpet as weed mats, mulch mats around trees, and in vineyards: There are quite spectacular figures on tree survival and vine growth rates where carpet is used as a mulch. Not only is it conserving moisture and suppressing weeds it is also a slow release fertiliser. This is quite an important focus for research internationally because carpets are bulky and make up 2- 3% of landfill in some countries

AgResearch fashion week show demonstrated a number of new fabrics.

Stab resist fabric and the new machine that produces it: normally if you are making a fabric you make the yarn first and weave that. This machine cuts out the yarn making stage. It takes the fibre itself and has a knitting action which locks those fibres together. It is somewhat revolutionary.

A new very lightweight woven natural shrink resistant fabric. The weight of a mans cotton shirt but made of wool and this is developed from a new spinning technology.

The physics of making a yarn is that you need about 40 fibres in a cross-section, so if you cut a yarn with a pair of scissors and count the number of cut ends there will always be a minimum of 40. Cotton fibre is very much finer than wool, so 40 fibres makes a very fine yarnand you generally ply two together and still make a lightweight shirting fabric, says Dr Ingham.

With wool, 40 fibres makes a thicker yarn but because it has a few weak places it is generally not strong enough to weave or knit. We developed a new modification to the spinning technology, which gives a much more even yarn because it does not have the weak areas, so for the first-time we have a fine single yarn which you can weave you do not have to ply two together and that almost halves the weight of the fabric.

Non-chemical shrink resistance: Normally to wool garments are given a chemical shrink resistance treatment that involves using chlorine, which is environmentally undesirable, and then putting a chemical resin on it. AgResearch has developed a weave that does not require any chemical treatment to give it shrink resistance, called Natural Easy Care.

It is quite a breakthrough because you can just throw your shirts in the wash and tumble dry them and they have no chemical treatment and there is no shrinkage, says Dr Ingham.

We are now looking at taking that with a slightly heavier weight fabric and going to a fully machine washable 100% wool business suit. There are machine washable suits around that contain a bit of wool, but generally they had to have a fair bit of polyester in them as well.

New fabrics produced by the same machine that produces the stab resist fabric. A range of tourist goods has been produced for Ngaitahu based on that technology scarves, shawls, with their traditional rock art.

It is quite easy to get the artistic patterning in. Effectively, you dissolve holes in the garment to make a fine lace effect, and that is quite difficult to do with conventional fabric because you have got strong chemicals on that actually dissolve the bits away we want holes. We can do that as part of the manufacturing process for this material.

If you are processing a tonne of fibre any fibre and not just wool you put in about 300 g of this tracer material in that fibre and with a little hand-held reader you can verify the fact that the right material is in there, says Dr Ingham.

The first customer for this material is a producer of fine wool yarns in China, although they are a German company. The big brands specify that manufacturers must use the yarn from particular companies but it is all done in China and one manufacturer might think that he could use a cheaper yarn, make more money and no one would know the difference.

Subsequently there is a complaint about the garment and the yarn producer gets the blame. Now for the first time they can put a little bit of the tracer in the yarn, and anywhere through the supply chain they can give garments quick scan with little scanner no bigger than a TV remote to determine whether or not the correct yarn is being used. It gives full traceability through the system.

It can also be used in labels, so that if you are a famous label company you can verify that a particular label is yours. You might commission, say, 20,000 garments to be made but the producers might make an extra 5000 and sell them on the grey market. They may not be poorer quality copies but they are counterfeit. The owner company supplies only 20,000 labels but the manufacturer has the labels copied. With the scanner you can determine whether or not a label is genuine.

See www.verifitt.com

In the past WRONZ/Canesis did a lot of work on non-woven items such as wool insulation, which is now commercial, and cheap needle felts such as Woolovers used for lamb covers. The company they were working with has now moved on to calf covers. In United States in some cold areas it has been found that calf covers markedly improve growth rates and more than pay for themselves. The calf covers are fairly recent and there is some ongoing work there.

The Section has the facilities to scour, spin yarn and weave or knit garments and other items for individuals. For example, a farmer may want his own wool processed into gifts for family, farmstay visitors etc. Similarly tourism operators may want small runs of specialty items. The Section can do this.