Despite strong demand, wool production globally is decreasing

Despite strong demand, wool production globally is decreasing

Wool may be a small market compared to other fibres such as cotton or synthetics, accounting for around 3-5% of worldwide fibre consumption, but its use could open market opportunities for brands.

According to Werner International consultant Nicola Mentore, as an inherently renewable resource wool could offer brands the ability to counteract some of the negative reputation of fast fashion.

However, the International Wool Textile Organisation (IWTO) has admitted that wool has been weakened by fast fashion's predilection for "cheap, petro-chemical based fibres".

But, in a note released last year following its annual congress, it said the fact that "fast fashion garments have short lifespans and soon end up in landfills," gave quality wool garments a cache that would be increasingly appreciated by discerning consumers.

"In contrast, a wool garment, made of quality fibre and designed to last, will be worn for years and afterwards is a valuable recyclable, that when the time comes will readily biodegrade."

Wool, stresses the IWTO, has a number of benefits that make it a good material for clothing companies to work with. Besides its durability, wool's natural elasticity means the fibres can flex and/or extend up to 30% without damage, and its ability to breathe and absorb up to 35% of its own weight in moisture (due to its hydrophilic core) means that it is perfect for outdoor clothing and activewear.

In fact, the group says, "outdoor and sports apparel is one of the fastest-growing markets for the fibre." 

It also has a low carbon footprint. According to the IWTO, wool needs only 1kg of oil to produce 1kg of final fabric – this is compared to the more than 5kg of oil needed to make 1kg of nylon fabric, 4kg to make acrylic, and just over 3kg of oil to make polyester fabrics.

Other positives include its naturally flame resistant ability that also can provide up to 30-plus more UV protection factor than synthetic and cotton fibres. It also does not melt or drip when exposed to heat, and when burnt emits less smoke and toxic gases than any other commonly used fibre today.

Werner's Mentore says that in terms of products best suited for wool, higher-end garments such as outerwear, sweaters/jumpers and men's suits continue to predominate.

Wool can be expensive, especially for high quality fibres such as those that come from the Merino breed of sheep. Merino wool is most often used for clothing because of its softness, while the Lincoln, Romney, Drysdale, and Elliotdale breeds produce coarser fibres used for making thicker outerwear and carpets.

World production

Australia remains the world's leading producer of wool, accounting for approximately 25% of world production. Research company Australian Wool Innovation projects the country will produce 322,000 tons of greasy (unrefined) wool in 2016. This mostly derives from Merino sheep, according to IWTO data.

In 2015, China accounted for 15% of global production, while New Zealand supplied 9% and was also the largest producer of crossbred wool. 

Will Chapman, director of fibres at PCI Wood Mackenzie, adds that South Africa, Uruguay, and northern areas of Europe also produce significant volumes of wool fibre, while IWTO also mentions the US and Argentina as key sources.

Global wool production stands at about 1.3m tons per year, according to the IWTO, of which 66% is used for manufacturing garments, followed by 30% used in interiors (which includes carpets, rugs and upholstery), and industrial uses of wool accounting for 4%.

US$80bn of wool products are sold annually at retail stores, the organisation says.

Supply and demand

However, projections for wool going forward look unsteady. PCI's Chapman mentions that the breeding of sheep for meat, instead of wool, has become more common, which puts the future supply of wool fibres in doubt.

A spokesperson for the IWTO echoes this thought, saying that while the market is seeing strong demand for wool, at the same time, "wool production globally is decreasing, and not expected to increase over the short term given the competition for agricultural land for food production, including sheep for meat."

Chapman expands on this, adding that supply of wool fibres has been meeting demand, but that demand is not growing.

"Wool is a real specialty on a global basis now – and the finer wool fibres are being preferred – say less than 20 microns," he explains. Such wool can be categorised as fine, superfine and ultrafine Merino wool – most commonly produced by Australia.

Any wool finer than 25 microns can be used for garments, and this quality makes up the majority of global wool production. Within the global market, approximately 50% of wool produced goes to apparel.

Of course, wool is also characterised by its diversity through being produced from animals other than sheep, such as goats, which produces several luxury fibres such as cashmere and mohair. China is the world's largest producer of cashmere – supplying approximately 70% of the market, while Mongolia is the world's second largest producer, supplying 15-20%, followed by Iran and Afghanistan at a combined 10-15%, according to APLF, a trade exhibition organiser.

In 2015, Mongolia produced 7,470 tonnes, according to Mongolia-based Monital Cashmere.

South Africa is the largest producer of mohair, producing around 50% of the world's total production in 2013, according to industry group Mohair South Africa. China is emerging as another strong producer of this wool.

Click on the following links to look at issues facing supply and demand of other raw materials:

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