Soaring wool prices make suits a luxury

It is like the butterfly effect, only in reverse. Tropical storms batter Australia, and you end up paying substantially more for a new suit.

Suit prices are expected to rise 10 per cent this year, a consequence of the doubling in the cost of wool.

Australia is the world's biggest producer of wool. Last week prices rose to a record $14.85 (£9.05) per kilo. Large-scale flooding across Queensland and Victoria early this year caused an estimated $7.3bn (£4.8bn) of damage, leading to a dramatic slowdown in production. Globally, wool output is are at its lowest levels for 85 years. Growing demand for wool suits from increasingly wealthy Chinese businessmen has also contributed to the surge in prices.

Wool brokers in Australia cut their inventories of wool to almost zero. In the UK, several wool auctions have been cancelled as supplies have run so thin. Already suit makers have been forced to raise prices. Harvie & Hudson, a family-owned business on London's Jermyn Street, has added £50 to the price of its suits.

Traders expect prices to remain high for several years while farmers increase global sheep numbers. In the meantime, retailers are nervous about whether they will be able to avoid passing the higher prices on to customers. For them, this is not an ideal time to raise prices.

A spokesman for Marks & Spencer, whose wool suits start at £159, said: "We will do all we can to mitigate the commodity impact and maintain our opening price points where we can [while] maintaining M&S quality."

Bernd Hake, UK managing director of Hugo Boss, which has 450 stores across Europe, said: "If the wool price remains on this level we will readjust our prices."

Not all of its suits are made using wool – Marks and Spencer sell a polyester two-piece for £59 – but high quality ones are. The rising global demand for them is outstripping supply of the raw materials needed.

The price rises may see such cheaper suits grow in popularity, as producers contemplate man-made fibre blends to avoid passing on higher costs to customers, although polyester prices have also increased. Wool-mix fabrics have increased in popularity, with young professionals less concerned about their suits being 100 per cent wool.

The rising costs will also affect other wool-rich clothing, such as socks and jumpers, but these are items in which synthetic fabrics can be more easily used as a replacement without such a serious compromise on quality.

The recent price rises are a dramatic reversal for an industry that has been in steady decline since around the 1960s. In 1966 the price of wool dropped by 40 per cent in a single year. Although it remains popular in expensive tailoring, its use in other garments has declined since the growth of synthetic fibres.

The result has been sharply reduced production and movement of resources into production of other commodities – in the case of sheep growers, to production of meat.

But the story has, before now, been rather different. The earliest known article of woollen clothing was found in a cave in the modern day Republic of Georgia, dating back to 34,000 BC. Though cotton from China was becoming available, it was wool, as well as leather and linen, that clothed the vast majority of Europeans during the days of the Roman Empire.

In the Middle Ages when silk, imported along the Silk Road from China, was considered an extravagant luxury, the wool trade was the economic engine of much of Europe. Northern Germany, central Italy, France, Belgium and the Netherlands were all dependent on wool, producing cloths from English raw wool exports. So important was this to the English economy that an export tax on wool called the "Great Custom" was levied. That the Lord Chancellor, until very recently the presiding officer of the House of Lords, has since the 14th century sat on the "Woolsack", a chair stuffed with English wool, is no coincidence.

When the Woolsack was replaced after the Second World War, wool from all corners of the British Empire was used. By that point Australia had become the world's largest producer. Some 25 per cent of the world's wool is still produced there.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

    £15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

    Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

    Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

    Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

    £18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee