Innovative and Sustainable Scrubs and Apparel

From Farm To Fashion – The ups and downs of wool and cotton

Virginia S. Borland, New York Correspondent

Merino wool production is on the decline, cotton growing is on the rise, and prices for both are at a high.

With cotton bringing in greater revenues, farmers are switching from planting corn and other food crops to planting more cotton. And there is a shift in farm location. Today, Texas is the largest cotton-producing state in the nation. California and New Mexico rank with North Carolina, Mississippi and Tennessee. Vegans are the losers — more sheep are ending up on the table as meat is bringing in greater revenues than wool.

The controversy over the practice of surgically mulesing merino lambs to eliminate the incidence of breech flystrike has led to genetic breeding efforts to eliminate the need for mulesing the animals.

Merino Wool
Wool and cotton share certain attributes: They are natural, biodegradable, sustainable and renewable. Although at the moment Australian sheep farmers are deriving greater income from meat than from wool, there is a demand for merino wool, so prices are high. Australian Wool Innovation Ltd. (AWI) and NewMerino® have developed new technologies that counter some of the negatives about wool.

From sheep to processing and finishing, today’s merino wool is lightweight and soft, available in ultrafine yarn counts, easy-care, and comfortable. There are merino wool fabrics that are wind- and waterproof, antistatic, antibacterial and/or moisture-wicking; offer ultraviolet protection; and/or are insect-repellent. In February, the first Woolmark Apparel Care — Gold Certification was awarded to the Electrolux® tumble dryer that enables wool garments to be safely machine-dried without shrinkage, distortion or disruption of fabric surface.

The Woolmark label, owned by The Woolmark Company, Australia, a subsidiary of AWI, can be seen on apparel ranging from high fashion to high performance. Blended with man-made fibers, wool is going into activewear, bodywear and socks. AWI is working with Italian fashion leaders Missoni and Benetton to position merino as the premium luxury fiber. Merino wool fabrics are being touted for all seasons, retaining warmth in winter and breathing softly in summer. They are comfortable next to the skin, natural, classic and renewable.        
With increased concern for the environment and animal protection, the practice of surgically mulesing merino lambs to eliminate the incidence of breech flystrike by blow flies has become a contentious issue. About eight years ago, NewMerino came into being. It is a brand of ethically produced Australian merino wool and operates under a certification program to ensure that wool and wool products meet standards for quality, environmental impact and animal welfare throughout the supply chain.

Wool growers participating in this program are known as preferred producers. Sheared wool from preferred producers is directed to top makers, then on to spinners, weavers and knitters, all of whom provide products that can be documented to be pure throughout the process. Sheep farmers adhere to strict standards that relate to organic farming and humane animal husbandry practices including ending the practice of mulesing. Slowly, through genetic breeding, the skin folds around a sheep’s anal areas that attract blow flies are being eliminated. Clipping is another way to shear wool from the sheep’s rump, but it tends to be labor-intensive.

The certification process is transparent throughout. Spinners receive pure, unblended NewMerino wool top from a known source, with known attributes and with predictable processing performance. Yarns sold to knitters and weavers are free of harmful chemicals and dyed using organic dyestuffs.

NewMerino was founded in Australia by Peter Vandeleur and introduced into the United States in 2009. “Wool is a natural, renewable fiber,” he said, “but wool buyers know that sustainability goes far beyond just the wool itself to understanding how it was produced.” NewMerino works back through the supply chain, educating retailers and brands, then assisting them with fabric sourcing.

Global Merino, San Amselmo, Calif., a vertical producer of fabrics and garments, is one resource for NewMerino. German spinner Südwolle GmbH & Co. KG is a major yarn supplier, with seven spinning mills worldwide, and is developing a wide range of new yarns, in both 100-percent NewMerino and blends.

Finer and hardier varieties of cotton are another reason for cotton’s popularity. Extra-long-staple Pima cottons require less water than food crops and can sustain a cooler growing climate than many other cotton varieties.

At Cotton Incorporated, Cary, N.C., product development and trend information services are provided to increase awareness of and demand for new cotton products throughout the supply chain. Forecasts for Fall/Winter 2012-13 colors, fabrics and silhouettes show innovative knitted and woven fabrics made at the company’s product development facilities.

Cotton Incorporated’s Fall/Winter 2012-13 trend forecast for colors, fabrics and silhouettes includes calendered cotton (top); and (bottom left to right) Bedford cords, lacy knits and pebbled checks.

Colors and trends are divided into five groups. The first group, Anticipation, is suggested for casual and activewear. There is a hint of 1960s and ’70s nostalgia here. Charcoal and black on the color card are contrasted with bright shades of electric blue, a bright lime green, golden apricot and an orangy-red shade plus pale silver.

Anticipation fabrics also show contrast. There are subtle background effects, and a small check is on a faintly pebbled ground that almost fades away. Doublecloths reverse from pattern to solid or are sided with different colors and textures. A gingham check turns over to reveal a basket weave; a black-and-white tweed reverses to red fleece. There are optical effects, including discharge-printed corduroys and tweeds with floating yarns.

The Social Club group is loaded with nostalgia. Colors range from soft blush, sage, and bleached yellow to mahogany and a blackened navy. Fabrics have luster, texture or a wooly appearance. There are calendered shirtings, satiny jacquards, and lacy knits. Heavy sweater knits and woven bottomweights are thickly brushed, and there are pleated knits and Bedford cords.

Rachel Crumbley, senior product trend analyst, Global Product Supply Chain at Cotton Incorporated, describes the Absurd group as “frivolous fluff and fun.” Colors are fresh, bright and clean, combined with a washed white, ecru, and two very deep shades of plum and peacock. Novelty denims in this range feature metallic yarns, cross-dyed speckled ribs, shiny/dull animal patterns, loosely constructed tweed knits and what Crumbley described as “absurdly soft” brushed surfaces.

Soft, neutral tones of gray and tan are in the Role Play group. White is called “glass ceilings,” and a pale blue shirting is called “ladies’ man.” It’s a new, updated direction for traditional colors and fabrics. There are a lot of ultra-lightweight knits and shirtings. Along with chambray, there are light voile and knits with a denim look. Velvet is shiny and washed. Denim is bleached for a pale winter appearance. Tweeds are woven with jaspé or multicolored nepped yarns.

There is an aged, antique feeling to the Decadent Decline group. Garnet, burgundy, blackberry, olive, cadet blue and taupe plus white have a dusty, weathered look. Some of the fabrics have a stained appearance or are subtly speckled. There are pilly-surfaced knits and tattered effects. There are coated khakis, tucked velvets and ombrés with a burnished patina. Open-work surfaces are achieved by a new development using a dissolvable cotton yarn treated with polyvinyl alcohol.

Other new developments at Cotton Incorporated focus on activewear. There are spongy outerwear knits with high/low surfaces, heather/stripe combos, stretchy French terry and single-knit fleece that is bleached and dyed with fiber-reactive dyes. And next season, look for a separate Denim trends forecast.

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