Firm creates golden fleece

Dr Kerstin Lucas and Prof Jim Johnston with their Aulana wool.
Dr Kerstin Lucas and Prof Jim Johnston with their Aulana wool.

Fusing gold and silver with wool sounds like something from the ancient Greek legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece.

In twenty-first century New Zealand it’s an idea that agri-science firm Noble Bond thinks has the potential to save New Zealand’s ailing wool industry.

The number of sheep in this country has now dropped below 30 million, its lowest level since the 1930s. Noble Bond’s Professor Jim Johnston believes the future of the sector depends on inventing ways of adding value to the fluffy stuff on the animals’ backs, and that his gold and silver technology has the ability to do just that.

“Over the decades wool has competed with synthetic fabrics and now wool only makes up about one per cent of textiles in the world,” Johnston says.

“I have a strong passion for New Zealand and I come from a farming background so I have always been very keen to see how we can use science and technology to add value to New Zealand produce.”

Eight years ago Johnston, a chemistry academic at Victoria University, achieved what the ancient Greeks had only dreamed of – combining wool fibres with pure gold using nanoscience. But this golden wool was much different to that of Jason’s fable, because at nano particle-size gold loses its yellow colour and takes on hues of purple, mauve and grey.  

Johnston regarded his purple gold wool as little more than a scientific novelty, until he was bombarded with its commercial potential when doing a presentation for Britain’s Institute of Nanotechnology later that year. 

“Quite a lot of the fashion designers came leaping over their chairs after my presentation and said ‘where can we get this technology?’. I had to tell them, ‘it’s only in the test tube at the moment’,” he says.

“Then the World Gold Council somehow picked up on these proceedings and they sent me an email saying ‘we are interested in this and we’d like to give you some money to develop this technology’.”

Later Johnston applied the same technology to silver, and in 2012 founded a company called Noble Bond with his PHD student, Dr Kerstin Lucas. The enterprise has sought the help of Wellington business incubator, Creative HQ. 

Wools of New Zealand, a marketing company representing more than 720 Kiwi strong wool (carpet wool) growers, spotted particular potential in Noble Bond’s silver wool brand, NgaPure, because of the antimicrobial – or bacteriostatic - qualities of silver.

There are bacteriostatic chemical treatments for carpets available but they are not long-lasting, Wools of New Zealand’s head of market development and innovation, Steven Parsons, says. NgaPure’s competitive edge is that the silver treatment will last several thousand years.

“There is a large global market for bacteriostatic carpet - anywhere where people don’t want carpets to smell or get mildew on them such as [in] healthcare, hospitality and public transport,” Parsons says.

“Coaches and trains in Europe often have velour fabric upholstery that tends to be wool but the transport companies don’t like the fact that it starts to smell after a while.”

A partnership was formed, and last year Wools of New Zealand took a 30 per cent shareholding in Noble Bond and became its exclusive wool supplier.

“It became very obvious early on that we needed a strong linkage with people in the textile industry,” Johnston says.

“Door knocking was just not going to work. I tried that initially in London and there was a lot of interest but 

I also got quite a few ‘we’ll get back to yous’ - of course nothing happened.”

Johnston and Lucas have developed their technology to allow the precious metal treatments to be applied to wool in industrial dyeing facilities. At the moment Johnston is in the UK overseeing a commercial trial in a textile dyeing mill, and the company is forging agreements to licence the technology to Wools of New Zealand’s manufacturing partners around the world. 

The NgaPure technology can be applied at different strengths depending on the level of bacteriostatic treatment required. A pricing structure is still to be determined, but Parsons says it could mark up the whole price of wool upholstery from £20 to £22 (NZ$39-$43) a metre.

“We’re not boiling down wedding rings here, it’s parts of silver per million, but it is expensive compared to chemicals you can buy that might cost around 10p (NZ19 cents) a metre to apply,” he says.

“Funnily few [manufacturers] ask me how much it costs, they tend to talk about it hitting new markets and having a competitive edge.”

Noble Bond’s supply agreement with Wools of New Zealand will also become a strong selling point, Parsons says. Traceability has become a hot topic in Europe since last year’s horsegate saga, which saw horse meat sold in place of beef in some UK supermarkets. Being able to identify the farmers who produced the wool is a market advantage. 

The partnership with Wools of New Zealand will also protect Noble Bond’s supply chain. The volatility of wool prices at auction has plagued the New Zealand industry for years and is a reason many farmers have switched to dairy. 

Wools of New Zealand’s business model is based on making fixed price arrangements with manufacturers and retailers to protect both its customers and the farmers from market variation.

“Sheep numbers are still in decline, but there is still a very good market for New Zealand wool as a whiter, brighter, cleaner product. But the volatility of the price just means customers simply go to different fibres,” Parsons says.

 “But we are in discussions with John Lewis department stores at the moment… When we have a contract from the client we lock it in at a certain price before the sheep are born.”

The UK and Europe will be Noble Bond’s initial markets, although the company plans to push into Asia and the US further down the track.

“Only three per cent of US buildings use wool carpets. They tend to only be in Hollywood mansions. Whereas 30 per cent of the British people have a wool carpet and it’s what people would aspire to have. A large part of our work in the US is educating people about the benefits of natural fibre.” 

As good as gold

Purple-coloured gold wool is not as hard a sell as you might imagine. Despite the fact that the fibre, sold under the brand AuLana, is not visibly golden there has been significant interest from interior decorators and apparel makers, Wools of New Zealand’s Parsons says.

“AuLana has a limited colour palette - it’s part of the challenge and also part of the appeal. It will be recognised for its greys, mauves, pinks and purple colour.

“It was explained to me quite well by one of the high-end Savile Row suit manufacturers. He said ‘Americans just want the splashy bling, but there is plenty of old money that will lap this up because of the integrity in the story’.”

There are no plans to mass-produce AuLana wool, which has the same antimicrobial properties as its silver cousin. However Noble Bond’s Johnston estimates the luxury product could wholesale for around £100- £200 (NZ$197-$394) a metre. Designer AuLana rugs are likely to be a bespoke offering. A display rug is currently being hand-knotted in India and will go on show at a British Society of Interior Design event in November.

“People will be dropped off at the event in their Bentleys and they will be told, ‘don’t walk on the rug because it’s pure gold’.

“That’s the kind of market we are looking at, the Bentley drivers and the people who can afford a £12 million apartment in London. Surprisingly there are actually a lot of them.”

There has also been wide interest in the apparel industry particularly from suit makers. “People are quoting numbers like £75,000 (NZ$148,000) a suit,” says Parsons, who admits he doesn’t often wear his own pin-striped AuLana suit for fear of “looking like Winston Peters”.

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