These pile fabrics look similar to sheepskins and use pure wool. But while retaining all the benefits of sheepskins, these manufactured fabrics have added advantages in terms of quality and price.
Woolmark licensee Fleece Products Pty Ltd, established in 1984 and located in northern Sydney, is one of Australia's leading manufacturers of woollen high pile fabrics. The company uses 100 per cent Australian fleece wool.
The company sells its pile fabrics to manufacturers of a wide range of products. While bedding underlays have traditionally been a large part of the market, the pile fabrics are increasingly been used for products as diverse as car seat covers, medical goods, equestrian products and boot liners.
Company owner Merv Reilly, says wool pile fabrics have advantages over traditional sheepskins.
“We produce pile fabric in rolls at least 160cm wide, sometimes up to 220cm wide, and the quality of the wool is even throughout the whole width,” Mr Reilly says.
“This is in contrast to traditional sheepskins that are limited by the size of a sheep, plus the quality of the wool across the whole sheep cannot be guaranteed, especially as the sheep being used nowadays tend to be older.
“Also, the structure of the knitted back of our fabric makes the whole fabric breathable, whereas with traditional sheepskin, while the wool is breathable, it has a skin backing – leather – which doesn’t breath.
“Furthermore, our fabric is machine washable and is not affected by UV unlike traditional sheepskins. And with Australian sheep numbers having fallen, combined with the closing down of tanneries in China, the price of a traditional sheepskin is relatively high compared to our manufactured wool pile fabric.”
Fleece Products sources its wool from Michell in Adelaide. It uses rectified top (shorter fibre length) of downs wool that averages 28 micron. The company has a collection of sliver knit machines that loops the wool fibres in a U-shape onto a polyester yarn backing.
Mr Reilly says the company’s machines include a set of seven sturdy, Italian-made machines that are suitable for producing heavier fabrics.
“These particular high pile knitting machines are a couple of decades old and are quite rare,” Mr Reilly says.
“While the more modern machines are good at producing lighter weight pile fabrics, these older machines are fantastic at managing the amount of wool needed for the heavier weight fabrics. So we can produce a large range of fabrics here with shorn pile weights from 300 grams per square metre all the way up to 1400 grams per square metre per shorn pile weight.”
After being knitted and going through a thorough quality inspection, the fabrics are then put through a cropping machine that shears the wool fibres to a length that suits the particular end requirements, ranging between 18mm and 36mm.
Next, a finish is given to the backing of the fabric which stabilises the fabric and makes it shrink resistant. There are different back coatings available that can give the fabrics a soft stretchy finish through to firmer finishes.
Mr Reilly says business has been tough for the past few years due to the challenging economic conditions across the world, and especially in the US market, but he is confident that business will pick up soon.
“We have traditionally sold a lot fabric that goes into products for the US housing and bedding markets,” Mr Reilly says. “That market is recovering so hopefully that will lift our turnover. But we supply lots of different markets now – in Europe and Asia, as well as here in Australia – and we cover a lot of different segments, such as seats for truck drivers, horse saddle pads and medical pads.”
Mr Reilly says he has always been passionate about using 100 per cent Australian wool.
“I began my career as a jackaroo in 1953, before moving into the carpet industry. And I’ve been manufacturing wool pile fabrics for nearly 30 years now. So I know a thing or two about wool, and I reckon Australian wool is the best wool there is.”