“So long” was the comment, as soon as locks of lustrous greasy wool from south west Queensland were unwrapped and placed on the table at the Shanghai offices of Australian Wool Innovation in October.
They had been brought all the way from the greater Roma region to the country that is Australia’s biggest wool customer by Maranoa Regional Council mayor Tyson Golder, who was taking part in the Food Leaders Australia AccessChina16 trade mission.
Greater China general manager Alex Lai was quick to stretch and flick the fibres between his fingers like the best wool classer, but his assessment was not what the local government leaders had expected.
They heard that many of the technological innovations giving wool greater versatility require a shorter staple length, from 50 to 62mm.
The ensuing conversation explored the way ahead for producers, highlighting the many layers between the paddock and the fabric makers.
A suggested trip to US brand makers was the eventual outcome of the debate begun by Cr Golder asking about the extent of the demand for shorter wool, saying they could change if they knew there was demand.
Mr Lai said wool length choices rested with European knitters, and they needed to speak to the people making use of technology that was making wool water repellent, easy care and shrink resistant.
Some of these techniques were displayed for Cr Golder and fellow western Queensland mayors Lindsay Godfrey and Annie Liston when they visited the AWI offices.
It was a fascinating experience for the trio to come face to face with the ways in which the raw material their constituents are producing, are being used.
Woolmark technical services manager for China, Gary Cai, and the general manager for Greater China and Hong Kong, Alex Lai, shared a number of garments to which technological advances had been applied, allowing them to do “something special” to extend the applications of Merino wool.
They included Merino Air clothing, which uses a single yarn where the wool fibre is put inside tape to enable less twist levels, yielding a lighter garment that still has the benefits of warmth.
Another was knitted denim, which has between 35 and 55 per cent wool content, depending on the customer.
“Levi 501 is selling jeans that are cotton on the outside, and inside is wool,” Mr Cai said. “Cotton absorbs a lot of water and jeans get cold, but these are repellent.”
While the felting property of wool is generally a negative among garment makers, Mr Lai said they had turned it into a positive with a technique that uses the knowledge of space travel and a chemical treatment to add polymers to yarn to make it shrink resistant.
“If we think out of the ordinary, we can promote that wool is unique,” he said.
The focus on the luxury touch with easy care and environmental properties is aimed at China’s top end market.
“One per cent of the top end of our population flies to Europe to buy a handbag – they can afford what we offer,” Mr Lai said.
“Wool in the total apparel fibre is 1.2 per cent – we are trying to bring the value up.
“A cotton Tshirt might cost $2 but a wool one that Esprit is selling is $25.”
Wool in running shoes, to cater for a youth market that doesn’t wear socks, is another idea under consideration, with both men saying that young people were a group they needed to concentrate on.
“We know about woollen jumpers but not the young. We have education programs and go to high schools,” said Mr Lai.
The delegation was shown various marketing campaigns using Chinese models, actors and jazz musicians, which debuted for the prestigious Shanghai Fashion Week, accompanied by a huge social media campaign.
Another campaign is educating Chinese people about using wool in spring and summer as well as autumn and winter, and AWI hosted an apparel care event in Shanghai in June to educate people on the wash and wear properties of woollen material these days.
After repeated questioning on the demand for raw Australian product, Mr Lai said that business was tough but wool was very competitive.
He said the good news was that people wanted natural fibre.
“In the old days, the stockpile killed us,” he said. “It took us eight to 10 years to clear.”
“We haven’t recovered yet,” Paroo’s Lindsay Godfrey replied.