Campaigning for wool

Next week, more than 80 fashion retailers will take part in yet another fashion week. This one, however, is a little different from the string of catwalk shows that take place in Paris, Milan and New York. The regulation runway will be replaced by a strip of grass, the supermodels by a flock of bleating sheep, and product labels will implore customers to “give fleece a chance”.

The first ever Wool Week, an event that will highlight the benefits of choosing wool over synthetic products, is the latest project from the Campaign for Wool, a coalition of style industry names headed by the Prince of Wales.

In January, Prince Charles rallied the troops by noting: “Around the world farmers are leaving sheep production because the price they get for their wool is below the price of actually shearing it. The idea is to explain the benefits of wool to the customer in a simple and creative way so that they appreciate the impact of the decisions they make.” In other words, the British wool industry is in decline: in 1997 the average price for a kilo of wool was 97p; last year it was a mere 68p.

Joining the Prince in his campaign is Nicholas Coleridge, managing director of Condé Nast Publications UK and vice-chairman of the Campaign for Wool, who believes man-made fibres have dominated the market for too long. “A very high proportion of fabrics sold today are made from dwindling fossil fuels,” Coleridge says. “People buy them because they’re cheaper, but there are so many reasons to buy wool instead: it’s biodegradable and sustainable.” Marks and Spencer, which uses 5,000 tonnes of wool each year, is also onside; it stocks wool that is machine-washable and can be tumble-dried, as well as washable woollen suits.

In some cases however, wool has benefited from the technological advances that have produced man-made fabrics. Clare Waight Keller, for example, is creative director at Pringle of Scotland, a Wool Week partner, yet she also says: “Man-made fibres have actually advanced wool’s sales over the years. When Lycra started to be mixed with wool, it was a revelation.”

Stuart Stockdale, creative director at Jaeger, says of man-made fibres: “There’s some fantastic stuff out there. Coupros [made from wood pulp] or even modern polyesters can be amazing.”

Besides, it’s not just nylon and acrylic – the former made from petroleum, the latter from plastic, both wool’s main rivals in appearance and price – that are at the root of the industry’s decline. Unlike synthetics created in controlled environments, “sheep have to be fed correctly and looked after expertly to produce high-quality wool for clothing,” says Waight Keller. “It’s the same amount of work that goes into producing cashmere, but consumers are more aware of cashmere’s value.” And more willing to pay for it.

Then there’s the weather: colder climates simply cannot produce fine wool such as merino. “We’ve always sourced our wool from Australia or New Zealand,” says Dawne Stubbs, creative director at John Smedley, one of Britain’s best-known knitwear brands. “We use merino which is very long and fine. As a British brand I’d love to use British wool, but it’s just not right for our product.”

According to John Thorley, chairman for the Campaign for Wool, bringing wool production back to home turf can have benefits for the environment, with knock-on benefits for brands. “Sheep fertilise land in a way that is unparalleled to any other fertiliser,” Thorley says. “With the BP disaster we should be more aware than ever that oil is running out, and we need to invest in alternatives to oil-based fertilisers and fabrics. Wool is the answer.”

Wool has also acquired its very own pin-up: the supermodel, actress and university student Lily Cole, who has set up her own knitwear brand, North Circular, with friend Katherine Poulton, and sources her wool from eco-designer Izzy Lane’s flock of Wensleydale Longwool sheep. “There’s something truly lovely about wrapping up in a woolly scarf on a winter’s night,” says Cole. Next week, the Prince hopes to take her words straight to the people’s pocketbooks.

Wool Week will take place from October 11–17,

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