Why wool is making a comeback after years of falling sales

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The Independent Online

As The Golden Shears World Shearing Championships take place at the Royal Welsh Show this week, a coalition of sheep farmers, designers, manufacturers and retailers convened by HRH The Prince of Wales is fighting to revive the nation's interest in wool. Launched in January this year, The Campaign for Wool aims to tackle falling wool sales in a five year drive that it hopes will raise awareness of the benefits and diversity of wool for use in carpets, insulation, bedding, upholstery, clothing and many other areas

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Talking about wool in the hottest summer we've had for years might seem like madness, but alongside its well-known insulating benefits, wool offers natural cooling properties as well as being naturally fire retardant, environmentally friendly, multi-purpose and, better yet, produced in the UK. This makes it an ideal material for use in the both the interiors and fashion industries, which have often favoured man-made materials over this completely natural British resource.

The benefits are something Welsh farmer, Roger Payne knows only too well. He launched the Baavet, a traditionally crafted 100 per cent natural wool fibre duvet with a cotton cover earlier this year, and notes, "For thousands of years, mankind has understood the qualities and benefits of wool. We just seem to have forgotten about it." It's worth remembering, however, that a wool duvet is a natural temperature regulator, naturally hypoallergenic, naturally breathable, sustainable and is 100 per cent bio-degradable making a rather covetable bed fellow.

"The good thing about wool is that it’s inherently fire retardant in a time when we're being pushed down tougher restrictions on what materials we can and cannot use" says Richard Brown, founder of Manborne Larimar, which manufactures and supplies furniture to hotels and resorts across the world and tries to use wool "as much as it can."

Environmental issues are increasingly important in light of targets by the government to make all new homes zero carbon by 2016. But wool can also provide a wide range of natural colours, says Richard, adding, "you have a huge amount of choice, the price is reasonable, it's environmentally sound and you’ve got quite a few suppliers and manufacturers here in the UK – if it's not been used enough, that because it’s not being marketed it properly."

A lack of marketing has been a primary cause of wool’s decline in sales in recent years, agrees Vanessa Brady, President of the Society of British Interior Design, who comments, "The wool industry did not have sufficient funds to market the benefits of wool over and above man-made fibres. It lost its place because it didn't represent and present itself properly."

Another problem has been that, because wool has been around for so long, people have a traditional view of it, says Vanessa, pointing out that wool is now machine washable, can be spun in its natural colours or dyed organically and "has a lot of pluses today that it didn’t have when it started to go into decline." The fact that is it fire inherent can also make interiors retailers and manufacturers a "significant saving", says Vanessa, who highlights the £2 per metre charge for treating fabric in line with fire safety regulations.

This October, as part of its close relationship with The Campaign for Wool, the Society of British Interior Design will help to attract more than 60 carpet companies and interior showcases to Wool Week (11-17 October), where a series of events and product launches will help to celebrate the diversity and versatility of wool in fashion, furnishings and the home.

Meanwhile, there are now over 1,500 signatures on a petition, launched by the National Farmers Union (NFU), for organisers of the 2012 Olympic Games in London to pick a range of specially designed, un-dyed wool carpets for use at the Olympics instead of a synthetic alternative.

Yorkshire wool merchant, Martin Curtis, created the carpets from sheep breeds across the UK in celebration of their diversity, and has already met with the Olympic Delivery Committee and construction companies involved in the creation of the athletes’ village, where the carpets would go.

Union officials, meanwhile, have met with Prince Charles, who they hope will lend his backing to the bid as part of the wider Campaign for Wool.

With better marketing, an improved product and more incentives to use wool, the qualities of this natural and environmentally friendly material are beginning to be appreciated. This year, the price of British wool rose to its highest level for 15 years; come 2012, maybe wool will once again be our most famous export.

Emily Jenkinson is interiors writer for furniture and interior design website mydeco.com.