Commodities: Struggling wool industry pins hope on new fashions

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The Independent Online
THE SLINKY, confident models sashaying down the Paris catwalks in the recent collections represent the high-profile, glamorous face of fashion.

But behind the bright lights, the textile industry and clothing manufacturers are struggling to rise above the accumulated pressures of recession, low consumer demand and cheap imports.

They may be encouraged that fashion trends are more interesting and inventive than they've been for years. People are abandoning the hard, tailored looks popular in the late 1980s for clothes with a more relaxed, softer appearance and a natural feel. After the runaway success of lycra, manufacturers are engineering new man- made fibres with desirable characteristics. If only customers were buying.

The wool market is facing a particularly severe crisis. Its origins lie in overproduction in Australia, where a large proportion of the world's fine wool used for clothing is produced. But recession and a few years of unpopularity for knitwear in the aggressive late 1980s have added to its problems.

Last week, a 42-year-old scheme guaranteeing prices to British wool farmers was withdrawn, possibly halving the 93,000 farmers' future income from wool. In Australia, the government last week halted sales from its huge wool stockpile to stop a two-year tumble in prices to historic lows.

In Britain, which mostly produces carpet-quality wool, the market price is a below-breakeven 64p per kilo, compared with the guaranteed price last year of 117p.

A spokeswoman for the British Wool Marketing Board in Bradford said: 'We are not estimating farmers will go out of business, because wool is now a secondary product. No farmer in this country is keeping sheep for wool, they keep them for lamb.'

But the timing of the withdrawal of the guarantee scheme is poor, hitting farmers when the lamb and wool markets are both ailing and prices are depressed.

Not everyone has been hurt by wool's low price. Simon Dutfield, joint managing director of Axminster Carpets in East Devon, said: 'The fall in wool prices over the last two years has been tremendously beneficial to us. It has kept us going.'

Axminster, a business with pounds 27m annual turnover, said carpet demand was hit badly by the lack of people moving house and falling interest rates, which cut into the income of pensioners, a big part of his customer base.

Low prices and the swing toward natural fibres could be encouraging demand for wool from clothing manufacturers, but it is hard to measure. Of total world fibre output, wool comprises only 5 per cent, and even at current low prices is still more expensive than cotton or man-made fibres.

Cotton is the most popular, making up 48 per cent of world fibre production. Man-made fibres comprise 45 per cent, flax or linen 2 per cent, and silk, the most expensive, accounts for only a trace.

Colin Purvis, secretary general of the Apparel, Knitting and Textiles Alliance, says that in recent years, demand for fibres has been determined by the niches they have developed based on appearance, comfort and practicality, almost regardless of price.

For instance, breathable synthetics have cornered the market in performance sportswear. Wool's niche is in formalwear, as the quality fibre for wool suits, jackets and overcoats. Cashmere, the world's softest and most luxurious material, is the ultimate knitwear fibre. Linen, reviled in the early 1980s because it creased so easily, became adored in the late 1980s and early 1990s for that very characteristic, and demand soared worldwide.

Textile manufacturers are tracking the trends to the minute. Joanna Bowring, design director of the fabrics workshop at Courtaulds International Fabrics, a division of Courtaulds Textiles, says that after the collapse of 1980s power dressing, consumers want a look that reflects a more relaxed attitude. 'They don't want to look like they are trying too hard to look good.'

But they seem to be willing to spend a bit more for good quality natural fibres, or for clothes made from the new man-made fabrics that look and feel more expensive. For manufacturers, this means increased production of blends using both natural and synthetic fibres to create fabrics ranging from silky or suedelike to matte or nubbly.

A rebound in UK consumer confidence and spending is what is needed to revive sagging sales of clothing and textiles. Industry leaders in Britain such as Coats Viyella and Courtaulds Textiles showed slightly improved profits in 1992 and hope the weak pound will encourange exports.

Mr Purvis said: 'Prospects for the industry very much depend on the national economy . . . We're not expecting a boom, but a steady, modest improvement.'

(Photograph omitted)