Whiter than white Merino boosts demand
The Merino Company at Levin has developed the whitest merino wool. Whiter than white, it means it can be dyed a wide range of colours. While New Zealanders will buy black and grey, the rest of the world wants and expects bright colours.
Levin-based The Merino Company/Levana Textiles chief executive Andy Wynne says it is at the forefront of developments, and as a result retailers and consumers all over the world are chasing garments made from wool spun at the Levin plant.
It is made into garments in Vietnam, and then goes to the sport market in Europe and the United States.
Australia's Lempriere company bought the Levin-based Levana Textiles in 2007. It had existed in various forms for 50 years before that.
Customers see New Zealand garments as ''craft'' rather than ''commercial'', Wynne says, and they love the New Zealand story.
"Our intention is to be able to deliver from the farm gate to the retail shelf and we only secure ethical, consistent merino wool which can be verified."
He says it is an innovative apparel industry that the Levin plant is part of.
"The biggest challenge chief executives faced was the massive restriction on colour. That's why people went away from wool - to cotton, or synthetics. Now we can produce white wool so colours are brighter and sharper."
Wynne shows off some brightly dyed merino socks.
"In fashion brands, colour is everything. If you don't get the colour, a garment doesn't live."
He says the wool industry rested on its laurels and the last development before the bright, white wool, was machine washable wool, developed some years ago.
"Christchurch-based Wool Industry Research Ltd asked us to develop a white wool for carpets."
Wynne says 87 per cent of wool produced in New Zealand is the coarser wool often used for floors.
"They gave us a grant for a year, and we have developed technology that means wool is resistant to light and lets wool carpet be dyed in pastel shades."
It is licensed out and could be commercialised soon.
"For the first time wool carpets will be able to compete with nylon carpets." Most of the world goes for nylon carpets.
There are 85 staff at The Merino Company/Levana Textiles in Levin. Wynne says there are spinners and knitters, and there is a fabric and yarn dyeing facility.
The fabric is shipped to Ho Chi Minh City, where it is made into garments. Most are performance apparel - such as ski wear, clothes for hunting, climbing, running and cycling. There is some fabric that is sent to Louis Vuitton and made into garments in Italy.
"People know they get quality merino from New Zealand, and it is the micron (softness) it claims to be. Not all merino wool is the same and a lot of manufacturers tell porkies."
Wynne says there is a merino belt, with Australia producing the most, then New Zealand, as well as South Africa and Argentina.
"Our customers nominate where the wool comes from. Some European brands only want Tasmanian merino, others in the United States might want New Zealand or Argentine wool."
The whiter than white merino wool is branded Enciel.
"Cyclists in The Tour de France would have worn wool once. Then it was superseded by synthetics. This wool can be dyed bright colours, gets sweat away, as well as being comfortable."
It is an option cyclists could go back to.
Then there is a product called NuYarn. It is a patented process that means wool fibres can be put together with no twist.
It means the wool is bulkier, and it dries five times faster than conventional merino but is the same weight as merino, Wynne says.
"It is stronger and there is no spirality (twisting of garments), which had been a problem. It means sweat can get away. "[Andre] Agassi lost a grand [slam tennis] final because he had a blister on his little toe. This could get rid of that."
And there is a stretchy, light jersey for merino undergarments. It is a double jersey but light.
It is sold by a company called Kuiu in the US and the vice-president is a hunter himself and tries all his lines. He has street cred. He wore this undergarment and now takes it to market.
"It means for a hunter going to Alaska, because [the jersey's] lighter, [he] might take more food and can stay away longer."
The company produces the lightest backpack and jumped at the opportunity to produce the super light merino clothing.
The Merino Company/Levana Textiles is also producing socks for elite European military.
"Five different countries have tried them, and the military say they haven't had anything as comfortable or warm or lofty. They say the socks are drier and produce no blisters."
Wynne says he is part of a hub of Levin manufacturers who work with the Horowhenua District Council.
"In Horowhenua, agriculture and horticulture, retail, engineering and manufacturing are the big employers. And they are all identified as growing businesses."
He says the challenge is making sure there is enough skilled labour. They hope to work with schools.
"We need 30 to 40 people in the next three to four years here at this plant."
Wynne is proud of the development in Levin. While a small centre, it has access to the airport and port in Wellington, Kapiti Coast airport at Paraparaumu, and has researchers and the airport in Palmerston North. It means Wynne can fly anywhere.
He has been in the textile industry for 25 years: "You learnt if you want to be in the wool industry then you need a good development system and smart people."
He says the plant adds value and then lets others make some money as well.
And Wynne is planning for growth.
"Merino has been put up on a pedestal and we are approached by a large number of customers. We are selective, though, and deal with companies that talk the same language as us - innovation."
Less than 15.5 microns - Ultrafine Merino
15.6-18.5 microns - Superfine Merino
18.6-20 microns - Fine Merino
20.1-23 microns - Medium Merino
Greater than 23 microns - Strong Merino
27-31 microns - Fine crossbred
32-35 microns - Medium crossbred:
23-34 microns - typically lacks lustre and brightness. Examples, Aussiedown, Dorset Horn, and Suffolk.
Greater than 36 microns - Coarse crossbred
35-45 microns - Carpet wools