A new fibre derived from wool but with different drape and handle properties is now being launched in the northern hemisphere where it is attracting interest from the top end of the clothing market.

The new fibre, called Optim, has been developed by Woolmark and the CSIRO at a cost of more than $10 million and uses a patented process to modifies the internal structure of the wool fibre so that is three microns thinner than the original and with none of its trademark crimp.

Optim comes in two versions: Optim Fine is a finer, straighter fibre that can produce a fabric that drapes and feels like silk; while Optim Max bulks up on exposure to water during processing and can be blended with regular wool to make a less dense wool blend that requires less yarn for each square metre and is ideal for lightweight knitwear.

Richard Wilson, Woolmark's group manager for Optim and technical development, told Australian newspaper The Age that the new fibre is "a lot more lustrous than conventional wool, has a lot less crimp, it is longer because it has been stretched and its dyeing properties are different. It gives a fabric with quite different properties in terms of drape and handle to what you would expect with wool."

The first commercial Optim machine has been sold to one of the world's largest cashmere producers, King Deer Cashmere Company in Inner Mongolia. The company plans to blend Optim with cashmere - a move that will take both fibres into new market segments.

Other applications for Optim include suiting fabrics and luxurious soft knitwear products.