Good wool hunting

New Zealand entrepreneurs are developing products for the building sector that put wool’s many positive properties to good use.

Dilana rug / design by Martin Poppelwell

Dull, grey nylon carpet tiles are Hugh Bannerman’s nemesis.

“I can’t bear the things!’ he says.

The director of Christchurch-based company Dilana laments the fact that the importance of floor coverings – whether for aesthetics, acoustics or general ambience – is often overlooked and can’t understand why some of the country’s most beautiful buildings have “something on the floor that looks like a footpath”.

His company recently replaced some of those dull, grey nylon carpet tiles at Government House in Auckland with a woollen axminster carpet featuring a New Zealand design and he says it has made a huge difference.

Government House green sitting room

 

“The comment that wins it for me was from the florist who had been decorating it for the past 20 years. She stopped and said ‘this feels prosperous’. Well, there goes wool for you!”

Bannerman has had a long history in the wool industry and Dilana started out making beautiful, bespoke woollen rugs with New Zealand artists, including Ralph Hotere, Don Peebles and Martin Poppelwell.

Martin Poppelwell’s Leaf + Stick rug

As the textile industry has gradually moved offshore, that part of the business has evolved and it now focuses on working with artists to create more traditional hand knotted rugs. It also produces digitally printed woollen rugs.

As well as unique rugs, he has also been at the forefront of innovation in carpet. In the 1990s, he found a way to weave a Gavin Chilcott design through 12m by 4m rolls of carpet that ended up in Air New Zealand’s lounges around the world, and he has also spent the past ten years developing a 100% wool carpet tile that performs better than its nylon counterparts and could help get wool back into the commercial world.

Woollen carpet tiles at St George’s Hospital, Christchurch

He says wool carpet retains its appearance for much longer than nylon “floor fuzz”, it’s a renewable resource and there’s an acoustic value to it as well.

“The PR spin from nylon is so huge,” he says. “There’s so many undersung elements to wool and we need to bring them back to the table … I think we’re seeing a [rise in demand for wool] from homeowners and there’s a bit of an upturn from interior designers. For architects, one of the problems is that they’re all under the hammer on time and they only really use catalogue carpets, so I think they could do more.”

Ryan Cosgrove, chair of Campaign for Wool New Zealand, says there’s a lot of wool-based innovation happening in New Zealand at the moment, but to compete in the building sector it’s crucial to meet existing regulations.

“You’ve got to play the game. Or change the rules of the game. We’re trying to do both.”

Wool education and promotion is what the Campaign for Wool is tasked with, and it is also trying to educate the construction sector. To do this, it has invested in research to work out “what’s available, what’s preventing [wool products] from being adopted by key decision makers and what we have to do to break down those barriers”.

It also conducts consumer research to see how awareness about the benefits of wool is tracking and, based on studies conducted in 2021 and preliminary results from a repeat of the research in 2023, “things are looking really positive”. Awareness of the benefits of wool in New Zealand, Europe and North America has grown from 40-50% in 2020 to 50-60% in 2023 and he believes that will continue to grow as more effort is put into reducing microplastic pollution and embracing the circular economy.

Awareness is not the same as consumption, however, and wool products also need to be price competitive, Cosgrove says. Bannerman says wool offers far greater value over the long run and Wellington’s T&R Interior Systems has just released a range of easy-to-install acoustic woollen panels under the Floc brand that are also comparable with existing synthetic options in terms of price and performance.

Floc panels featured in Threefold Architecture’s office.

“I think using wool is a no-brainer,” says chief executive Tash Thwaite. “We wrap our babies in it. Why wouldn’t we wrap our walls in it?”

The idea of using wool like this had long been on the mind of her father and T&R Interiors’ founder Stephen Thwaite. He wanted to help farmers and bring up the price of strong wool, which accounts for around 80% of New Zealand’s total clip, but things only started ramping up around 2-3 years ago as demand began increasing for more sustainable options.

“It’s taken quite a while and a hell of a lot of money to get over some of the hurdles,” she says.

Most of those hurdles have been ensuring that the woollen products stand up to current regulations around moisture and fire, but it has “ticked every box” and now has a patent pending for the process it uses to ensure fire retardancy.

Thwaite says the company is working with a masters student in Wellington on a life cycle analysis, which will be used to get Floc’s Environmental Product Declaration.

Around 40% of the world’s emissions come from construction and buildings, while construction and demolition is responsible for around 50% of the waste generated in
New Zealand. This is a big talking point in the industry, says architectural consultant Claudia Cowie.

“There’s a lot of excitement [about Floc]. People are really interested in finding new, alternative ways to build that have fewer long-term effects. It’s front of mind for most architects and designers … They like that there’s something a bit different. And there hasn’t been much in terms of product choice.”

3D Floc panels by Haumi and Workshop E at the Dubai Expo

Floc has also developed 3D panels where the wool is pressed into shapes. A beautiful design by Haumi and Workshop E featured in the New Zealand pavilion at the 2020 Expo in Dubai and there are also panels in the Wool in Schools containers that travel the country educating kids.

Thwaite says it is currently redesigning these 3D panels to remove the polyester bond – something that is “very, very, very hard to do” – and match the fire retardancy standard of its flat panels. Cowie says most of the questions she gets now are about the 3D panels because they create so much more visual interest in the building. It is planning to offer them again early next year.

Because it’s a unique product, Thwaite says there’s a big opportunity to export. The focus will initially be on Australia, South East Asia and the Pacific, but there’s no reason Floc can’t go further. NZTE has contributed funding, adding to earlier funding from the Ministry for Primary Industries and Callaghan Innovation.

“If we get this right, and there’s no reason we can’t, Floc will take over as our biggest product … We’re predicting that Floc will quadruple our sales.”

The primary market for the panels, which snap into clips attached to the wall, is commercial, but there have also been some residential enquiries. Thwaite says “we’re forever talking about what’s next” and there are plenty of opportunities to extend the range. It has already designed a product called Floc Clouds, 40mm fibreglass panels wrapped in Floc that can be printed on and act as a canvas or a stand-alone block of colour, and ceiling baffles are another possibility.

Cosgrove says the combination of clever innovators, a new Government directive to use more wool and growing consumer demand for natural products means there’s a lot of optimism in the sector at the moment.

“Everything is going in the right direction,” he says.

For more information, visit nzwool.co.nz

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