Merino under trial in combat zones

WAR-M CLOTHING: A British company owned by a South Island family has sold more of its ‘‘base layers’’  to military and police teams.
WAR-M CLOTHING: A British company owned by a South Island family has sold more of its ‘‘base layers’’ to military and police teams.

Military and police services are a multimillion-dollar market for the merino wool garments made by a New Zealand-owned company, TIM CRONSHAW reports.

Combat soldiers are coming around to the idea that merino underlayers made from New Zealand wool are better closer to their skin than synthetic garments when under attack.

Armadillo Merino, a British company owned by the South Island family of Andy Caughey, began manufacturing a merino base layer range this year and has secured contracts with national and regional military and police services.

Merino base layers are worn as a protective layer under uniforms and are being tested by soldiers in combat zones.

Caughey said soldiers had been fairly muted about their opinion of the gear and top officers had explained this was positive as they were quick to complain.

"There's been little feedback which is a good sign. . . . They won't tell us if it's really good."

Armadillo is promoting the benefits of merino wear in encounters with improvised explosive devices. The risks of further burning from explosions are less than undergarments containing polyester and nylon, which can cause deep burning to the skin.

The wool is supplied by the New Zealand Merino Company with Auckland company Designer Textiles manufacturing the range.

Armadillo's profile is expected to be raised from winning the NatWest Startup Awards this week in Kensington, London for the best Product Business of the Year. On the judging panel was ‘Dragons Den' Scottish entrepreneur Duncan Bannatyne.

Caughey said sales turnover had been had been more than £100,000 (NZ$192,000) in the first year and the potential market was worth millions of pounds if major contracts were made to military and police services.

Sales were expected to pick up in the northern hemisphere winter, he said.

"The award will raise our profile and reassure the people who have bought the product. For those sitting on the fence it will hopefully nudge them along. We have seen how merino took time (to get off the ground) in New Zealand and it's very much the same over here. Once it gets moving it will move quickly."

As well as its fire retardant qualities, merino wear is being promoted as a safer option as, unlike synthetics, it does not generate static build-up which can cause fuel to ignite.

Caughey said the garments would not necessarily save every life, but could reduce injuries and prevent secondary infections.

He said continental Europeans from Italy, France and Switzerland understood the qualities of merino wool from the fashion industry, but other militia needed more education.

Armadillo supplies one of the police districts in Switzerland and there is speculation that this could include the Swiss Guard, providing security for the Vatican, as the under layers are being tested in Rome. British sales are slower as a result of budget tightening, but the range is being worn by the Royal Air Force mountain rescue team and was worn by marine firearms officers during the Olympics.

The newest contract secured a few months ago was with the special forces in the Italian navy.

Caughey said the contract was secured when Armadillo and a British trade group convinced top brass in March that they would reduce injuries from contact with explosive devices.

"The Italians were wearing synthetics and we highlighted the risks of them melting."

He said their interest could rub-off on other services.

Armadillo has set up trials in Canada, the US and Brazil.

Fairfax Media