Long heralded as the fibre of choice for insulating next-to-skin base-layers, innovations in wool have led to a rise in the use of the fibre in outerwear apparel, such as jackets. A recent development between The Woolmark Company and one of China’s leading woollen textile enterprises, The Nanshan Group, has resulted in a 100% wool fabric that protects the wearer from the elements.
The Neulana Protect fabric was developed at the Wool Development Centre, which was set up in 2013 in China, by both The Woolmark Company and The Nanshan Group. The resultant unique, high-performance fabric is one that is resistant to both wind and water, making it suitable for outdoor wear and sports such as recreational sailing. The fabric is constructed at very high levels of thread density in warp and weft using fine Merino wool yarns that have been stretched, but not set, during OptimTM processing. It is only when the fabric is wet-finished that the stretch is released causing the yarns to contract, thus leading to an extreme tightening of the fabric structure and the creation of the immensely dense fabric.
After optimising the spinning, weaving and finishing processes, the fabrics made from these elastic Merino wool fibres have enhanced water and wind resistant properties (while retaining all Merino wool’s fine properties such as breathability) and are also machine washable, without any chemical treatments.
Since the fabric’s unveiling, a number of global brands have been quick off the mark to get it into production, with Norwegian sports brand Devold and Swedish brand RÖJK Superwear even picking up prestigious ISPO Awards at the sports and outdoor trade show in Germany. Devold’s commercially available Trollkyrkja jacket uses OptimTM technology to construct a wind and rain resistant jacket for its active customer.
“We are very proud of this product; it is our first outer-layer product, and being able to launch an all-round, all-year jacket in 100% Merino wool is very exciting,” said Devold Marketing Director Janne Strømmen. “After heavy field testing - both myself and my colleagues, and some of our brand ambassadors - we agree that this is the one jacket you need most of the time in the mountains. It is perfect all seasons for hiking and outdoor activities, and in addition it looks great.
“What appealed to us with this fabric is that it is made from 100% Merino wool, and the final garment offers benefits making it comparable and superior to soft-shell jackets made from synthetics. The jacket breathes and regulates your temperature and is flexible and comfortable to wear when being active or out and about in the city.”
RÖJK Superwear - the relatively young outdoors brand from Sweden, is dedicated to creating highly sustainable, innovative and functional products for outdoor enthusiasts. In fact, it recently announced that by 2020 it would make its entire product range 100% biodegradable and natural.
With the company’s focus on “products made with love for the planet”, it was very apt that RÖJK’s Badland jacket won the 2018 ISPO Eco Achievement Apparel Award and the Scandinavian Outdoor Group's Sustainability Award. It also won an ISPO Award for Outer Layers in the outdoor segment.
“Other brands fight over who can bark the loudest about using recycled synthetics, and sure, they may be better than non-recycled ones, but they are neither biodegradable nor natural and they still contribute to demand from the supply chain. This is not the way to rid our oceans and forests, or even food, of microplastics,” said RÖJK marketing director Linus Zetterlund. “Unlike our competitors, we are fully determined to do whatever we can for the benefit of our planet, even if it costs us a little profit.”
“Unlike our competitors, we are fully determined to do whatever we can for the benefit of our planet, even if it costs us a little profit.”
Outdoor apparel brand Ibex form Vermont in the USA also launched two similar products, constructed from the OptimTM fabric. The Pursuit Shell is mountain sport inspired and clean cut for athletic endeavours; the Pursuit Trench is urban focused with a modern and tailored trench style. “We first came across the Optim material at The Woolmark Company’s stand at the 2016 Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City,” said Vice President of Marketing at Ibex, Keith Anderson. “Instantly, we were impressed with the performance and richness of the Optim fabric. The fact that it is a high-performance woven fabric with weather resistant properties that is made from 100% wool blew us away.
“The thing that really grabbed our attention about the fabric is that it provides us with a natural alternative - by using the weave structure to create the performance properties instead of the widely-used practices of DWR (durable water repellent) and topical chemical finishes. This water resistance will last the life of the garment and not just 20 washes like DWR and other chemical finishes which break down quickly. From our testers' points of view, the jacket did exactly what it needed to do, it kept everyone dry and allowed moisture vapour to escape without issue, all while allowing the quiet nature of the fabric to be appreciated.”
The Woolmark Company’s technical innovation team has continued to work on the development of the OptimTM fabric, which is now commercially available in three different weights: 180g/m2 plain weave, 240g/m2 warp rib, and 265g/m2 gabardine. A fourth option – the lightest of all at 130g/m2 – has a small percentage of nylon blended with the wool, to allows for extra resilience in the lightweight fabric. The differing weights and the inherent properties of the wool fibre allow for interest from both the activewear, streetwear and smart-casual sectors of the global apparel industry.
“By focusing on consumer needs and through close partnerships with professional partners, we find new opportunities delivering high-quality garments to both outdoor lovers, explorers and workers in extreme climates and conditions,” says Strømmen on the importance of innovation. “To stay relevant to our retail partners and consumers, we have to show the ability to continue leading innovation and quality standards.”