The retail value of wool apparel sold is around US$80bn annually

The retail value of wool apparel sold is around US$80bn annually

While global wool production for the 2014/2015 year is forecast to be at its lowest level for 70 years, its prospects for future growth are positive, according to a new report from just-style.

The retail value of wool apparel sold around the world is about US$80bn annually and, with its price often averaging five to seven times more than cotton, wool is very much a premium product.

In an era of man-made synthetics and fast fashion, just-style's latest research report - 'Wool in the 21st Century: new prospects for a familiar fibre' - asks whether wool lost its relevance for the apparel business? Or is it making a comeback as a 21st century fibre, driven by improved aesthetics, performance aspects, and sustainability credentials?

Wool gathering and consumption
Because wool is a premium product, its price reflects global economics - and was one of the hardest-hit agricultural commodities of the global recession of 2008/09, according to Rabobank.

Recent drought conditions in Australia - the world's leading producer of wool - New Zealand, China, and the US have further curtailed wool production which, for the 2014/2015 fiscal year, is forecast to be at a 70-year low.

Predictions for 2015 are slightly more optimistic, as sheep numbers in Australia have recently levelled after a 20-year decline. However, the country's production of greasy wool is unlikely to exceed 350m kg by the end of fiscal 2016/17.

The continued low level of production is expected to keep wool prices on the high side, especially in relation to other apparel fibres such as cotton and polyester. The inherent value of wool as an apparel fibre, and its continuing importance in the textile business, will depend a great deal on innovation, marketing, and consumer perception.

Spinning a tangled supply chain
The spinning of wool yarns has become a highly competitive global industry, with China the leader in the spinning of wool and noble fibres, followed by Italy, India, Turkey and then the US.

Many Chinese spinners are vertical processors, from greasy wool to yarn; others comprise vertical operations from spinning through knitting and retail brands. As such, European spinners have found it all but impossible to compete with the price of Chinese yarn, and the quality of the country's spinning has improved rapidly.

Yarn fair SpinExpo was established in Shanghai in 2002 to provide these spinners with an international forum. With lower labour costs, Chinese spinners have also invested in the same high-tech spinning machines used by the Italians, they source the same high-quality Australian wool, and in many cases employ European designers and technicians.

A number of Chinese and European spinners have formed partnerships and collaborations, creating a web of supply chain relationships that criss-cross the globe.

Wool in the 21st century
While wool is an ancient fibre, the attributes of 21st century wool compare favourably with those of competing synthetic fibres. Indeed, along with its heritage and technical attributes, wool is very much a fibre of the future, report authors believe.

Wool industry stakeholders are cautiously optimistic regarding wool's future prospects, with the fibre evolving into new markets and new categories such as urban and outdoor where an increasing number of leading brands are discovering Merino wool.

In China, 2015 is the 'Year of the Sheep', and the country has the potential to contribute significantly to wool's future prospects. 

As a natural fibre, wool's greatest challenge for apparel end uses is likely to continue to be price. This is forecast to continue to fluctuate based on supply and demand, subject to the vagaries of nature, and global currencies and economics; and may continue to confine the fibre to the high-end market for the foreseeable future.

Nonetheless, wool's message - good looks, comfort, longevity, performance, and sustainability - along with its many new technical developments and end uses, should certainly resonate with a new generation of consumers.

Click on the following link to access the reportWool in the 21st Century: new prospects for a familiar fibre.

Expert analysis

Wool in the 21st Century: new prospects for a familiar fibre

Wool in the 21st Century: new prospects for a familiar fibre

This just-style report takes a look at this rather forgotten, yet unique textile fibre and examines the place of wool fibre in the textile value chain. It addresses its decline in popularity, the more