Combining a love of wool and design in products for children
Woolkin is a New Zealand company combining a love of wool and a gift for design to create a range of products for babies and children - and has the potential to replace other product lines currently dominated by plastics. Through design and innovation, they aim to use better materials to create clean, safer products for healthier homes and environments - and re-empower the wool industry in New Zealand.
Blythe Rees-Jones grew up on a sheep and beef property in Central Hawke’s Bay. He says he was always interested in farming, fascinated by wool, and “creating things” from an early age. His grandfather was a prominent Romney stud breeder, Donald McDonald (who formed Anui stud in 1945). Inspired by his brother and encouraged by his family, Blythe completed a Bachelor of Design in Wellington. After designing for clients and companies involving projects based on primary produce, a Biella Masters Scholarship win took him to Biella in Northern Italy, travelling with a New Zealand farmer. There, he was further inspired to explore wool’s potential. Blythe says it gave him an international perspective on how people worked with New Zealand (and European) produced wool.
Blythe was inspired to “do something” about the decline of wool’s fortunes in the New Zealand economy by one of his brothers, Hayden (currently managing Taurapa Station in Hawke’s Bay). Blythe says he was challenged and inspired to “affect the fate of New Zealand wool”. Blythe, his wife Anna, and business partner Luke Morreau created Woolkin to find new alternatives for wool, in addition to carpets, and textiles for clothing and furnishings.
When Blythe and Anna began their family, it was at a time when people were becoming more invested in the materials that were coming into their homes, including the toys their children played with. Because humans learn initially through touch and kinetics, the feel as well as robustness of early childhood toys is very important. Also concerned about the growing gap between youth and wool, Blythe and Anna wanted to re-educate the next generation by incorporating wool into the lives of young people. They then had to figure out how to do that in a new way and so began work on building a new material from wool - and a brand.
Wool has many natural attributes that makes it an ideal material for domestic and early childhood and development applications. Many people know that wool is naturally flame resistant, anti-bacterial, toxin free, sound absorbing, breathable and renewable. In addition, when processed in a particular way, it has a unique tactile quality that creates an instant connection in humans, as it is biomechanically compatible with skin. Blythe explains it is not something you can readily explain but when people pick up and feel the products they understand immediately.
Initial research led the team to focus on social media-savvy females who were starting families and wanting healthy materials in their homes for their babies. They then connected that brand story to an international audience. Initially, this was in the days before Facebook had reached its current spread. Anna is primarily responsible for running and organising Woolkin’s presence at trade shows, including Parent & Child and more particularly, Sustainable Design and Health and Well-being Expos.
Many hundreds of prototypes were trialed and evaluated before settling on the current range and further development is on going.
All material in the Woolkin toy and baby range (both wool and timber) is sourced in New Zealand and is “biocompatible, biodegradable and recyclable”. Some wool processing is currently done offshore but the intention is to bring the entire production chain within New Zealand. Design, processing, manufacture, marketing and promotion of products happens in Tauranga and Auckland. The timbers used in the toys are FSC certified, primarily pinus radiata.
Co-founder and Brand and Marketing Lead, Luke Morreau says they aimed to create a 100% wool material that was machinable (like timber), moldable (like plastic) and foldable (like metal) - all while retaining the inherent properties of wool. They’ve called this Nature’s Clip™ and Luke says it is at the heart of all Woolkin products and has huge potential to grow outside of that. They are currently collaborating with some other designers and manufacturers looking at other applications of Nature’s Clip™, including a biodegradable plastic-free alternative to bubble wrap, and lighting.
In 2019 Woolkin won the Purple Pin at the Designers Institute of New Zealand Best Design Awards for Brave Dave the Fire Engine, as well as the Gold Pin for Sustainable Product Design.
Blythe says all wool growers in New Zealand should be proud because the wool they produce is world class. But he cautions there is a mindset among some wool producers that needs to change before wool can reclaim its rightful place as a primary source material into the future.
The Woolkin customer base is beginning to move outside New Zealand and Australia. Online sales have reached Europe and the US, with China showing interest and Japan is another potential market. Blythe says the company’s export growth will be carefully managed. They have recently made the move to supply a few select retailers in New Zealand.
Showdown Productions Ltd - Rural Delivery Series 15 2020