Mihi gets next to your skin

ANGELA CROMPTON
Last updated 05:00 26/01/2013

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Wool is natural so it's got to be good for you.

So reads a promotional line for Mihi Merino, a clothing company using Marlborough merino wool to make next-to-skin garments.

The wool comes from merino flocks on two Marlborough farms, the Pitts' in the Awatere Valley and the Patties' at Tetley Brook near Seddon.

Mihi Merino was launched in 2009 by Martin Pattie, a fourth-generation farmer at Glencairn, set up by his great-grandfather John Dollar as part of the 1890s Starborough settlement ballot.

The first Mihi Merino sales were made 110 years later via the internet and a Nelson retail outlet. Then, on December 1 last year, a small store was opened on Wynen St, Blenheim.

Its manager and Martin's partner Lyn Brown says it is good to have an outlet in town where shoppers can see first-hand the range of Marlborough merino garments. Future growth, however, is likely to be through the internet, she adds.

She and Martin want the business to expand and see opportunities for other farmers to start selling merino wool to Mihi.

Merino sheep, a breed with a long history in Marlborough hill and high country, has an increasing presence as vineyard owners use it on the lowlands to graze between the rows of vines.

As more wine growers meet the ecological standards set by Sustainable Wines New Zealand, sheep are a fuel-saving, chemical-free way if controlling weed growth during the winter months, Martin says.

Sheep are shorn annually and in earlier years New Zealand farmers sent their fleeces to local woollen mills to be spun into yarns. According to their strength, the yarns were made into blankets, tweed, flannel, serge and worsted.

But by 2000, the woollen mills had largely gone.

Light-weight, easy-care synthetic fabrics had gained favour and mills were sold to overseas companies which then closed them down, sending wool offshore to be spun into yarn by a lower-paid workforce, Martin says.

Some forms of the industry are being rekindled and he is following with interest the progress of a Milton, Otago mill which re-opened last year.

In the meantime, shorn wool from the Pitts' and Patties' farms is divided into three weights - fine, medium and strong - then sent to Christchurch.

After being scoured or cleaned, it is shipped to Malaysia where top-makers and spinners at a Japanese spinning company, Nankai, turn it into yarn.

"Then it comes back into New Zealand to be knitted into cloth - or socks," Martin says.

He describes merino fabric as lightweight, breathable, sustainable, odour-free and fire-retardant.

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It is renewable and can be farmed sustainably and in its finest form - 150 micrograms per square metre -it is perfect to use for next-to-skin garments like singlets, camisoles and T-shirts.

Medium merino - 180 micrograms per sqm - makes good mid-layer garments, while the stronger - 300 micrograms per sqm - merino is kept for outer layers.

Merino socks are a Mihi specialty.

Made from different merino fabric weights, there are tramping socks, sports socks, cycling socks, dress socks and children's socks.

All were tested by friends and family, so it was "a trial and error thing", Martin says.

"Crash and bash, I call it."

- The Marlborough Express

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