South Africa is one of the major producers of wool in the world, with more than 90% of the country’s wool clip exported in raw form. Much of the clip is either Merino or from Merinos that have been crossbred with other breeds to include qualities for meat production. Although primary production is flourishing locally, the processing industry has almost completely died out.

South Africa’s wool clip from Merino sheep is highly sought-after for men’s suits and women’s apparel. Wool is shorn, classed and baled on the farm and then transported to brokers in Port Elizabeth. Here it is sold on auction and finally shipped to various countries for processing.

The major buyers of wool in South Africa are Standard Wool, Lempriere, Modiano, Tianyu, Stucken, Segard Masurel Wool Buyers and New England Wool. According to Christine Taylor of Segard Masurel, a well-known wool trading and processing company in South Africa and globally, buyers fall into two broad categories: Those who are buying for their own operations abroad, and those who are agents operating on commission.

To fully comprehend the ins and outs of the wool value chain, a good starting point is to understand the terminology.

Terminology tells the story

Raw wool is processed to get a clean, combed wool top that is ready for spinning and manufacturing of clothing, carpets and other products.

Shearing

Sheep used to be sheared once a year, by hand or with electric shears, but shearing intervals have changed in recent years. Christine explains: “Although some producers still stick to a twelve-month shearing pattern, many are moving to either an eight-month or even a six-month interval in some cases.

“This phenomenon has a few causes: One is that the price of six to eight months length wool is high enough to warrant the extra shearing and handling costs involved; another is that an extra weight of wool can be obtained by shearing three times every two years, as opposed to twice in two years. Another factor is that in certain areas of the country it is better for the animals’ health, especially for lambing ewes, not to carry too much wool during stressful times.

“The shearing season usually runs from the end of July up to mid-May and falls in line with the selling season, which runs from mid-August to early June. Shorter wool (six months shearing and less) is normally used to manufacture yarn for machine-knitted garments, while the longer staple lengths (eight to twelve months) are blended to produce woven textiles such as suiting.”

Grading

Wool is sorted into groups of the same type and quality, ready for sale by auction. Fibre is sorted according to length and diameter – measured in microns (1 micron = 0,001mm). The fineness of the wool, determined by micron size, is a major consideration for processors. The lower the micron figure, the finer the quality.

Christine says the current South African Merino clip averages around 19,8 microns and ranges from as fine as 14 microns right up to 23 microns for Merino wool, and even up to 30 microns for crossbreeds.

Scouring

Raw wool, called grease wool, contains grease and dirt that needs to be washed without agitating it too much, as this will result in felting. This process is known as scouring.

Bales of greasy wool in the holding area before scouring.

Wool is carefully washed at temperatures between 55 and 65°C, using eco-friendly biodegradable detergent, rinsed and then dried at temperatures ranging between 100 and 120°C. Waste water is recycled and processed to remove the wool grease, which contains lanolin – a valuable commodity used in many cosmetics. Carbonising is often used to remove stubborn foreign matter from wool by immersion in diluted sulfuric acid.

Scouring is done by machine to wash grease wool and remove dirt.

Carding

“The scoured wool is fed through machines that use varying sizes of rotating cylinders covered in carefully spaced pins to remove the larger bits of vegetable matter and to align the fibres parallel with one another,” Christine explains. “Wool comes off the carding machines in the form of a thick sliver. The sliver is then drawn out and blended with other carded slivers and wound to produce 18kg bobbins with a sliver weight of approximately 30g per metre, ready for combing.”

Wool comes off the carding machines in the form of a thick sliver.

Combing

“Each combing machine is loaded with twelve of these bobbins, and the twelve individual slivers are fed and blended through the combing mechanism, which removes short fibres (noils) and any remaining small pieces of vegetable matter. Each comb produces a clean, blended, perfectly aligned continuous sliver of parallel wool fibres wound into large cans, ready for final preparation.”

Slivers of wool are fed into the combing mechanism to remove short fibres.

Finishing and drawing

Christine explains the process of finishing and drawing as follows: “The thick slivers from each of up to five of these larger cans are fed simultaneously through a machine known as a bump finisher. This machine can be set in various ways to produce the exact final sliver weight and bump weight desired by the spinning client.

One of the final steps is finishing, where a bump finisher machine determines the final length and thickness of the top sliver.

“It draws the thick slivers in at a certain speed, while increasing the speed at which the sliver is drawn out. This process is known as drawing. The faster the speed at which the sliver is drawn away inside the machine, the thinner the resultant final top sliver. Together with further settings, this will determine the length of sliver released at one time to form a bump. These bumps are then stacked into carriers and taken to the high-density press to be packed into bales.”

These bumps are then stacked into carriers and taken to the high-density press to be packed into bales.

Spinning

According to Christine, “spinning involves the drawing out of the top sliver into successively thinner and thinner gauges, while imparting the essential twist that gives the yarn its strength. The finer and longer the wool staple length, the finer and softer the resulting yarn.” Yarn is made in two main ways: Woollen yarn is made by twisting short fibres lying in different directions; worsted yarn is made from long fibres lying parallel.

Dyeing

“Dyeing can be done at most stages of processing after the wool has been cleaned and vegetable matter removed, but not before,” says Christine. “When the wool is dyed in top form it is known as bump-dyed, or sometimes as stock-dyed. It can also be dyed after spinning (yarn-dyed), or in woven or knitted form (piece-dyed)”.

Many processing companies are very secretive regarding the exact details of dyeing, but most of them use the same modern techniques involving heat and pressure. Both are carefully controlled to properly saturate the fibre with colour and avoid damaging it. Reactive dyes are used, which involve a chemical interaction with the fibre.

Global wool trends

In a recent article by the New Zealand Herald, Poala Ercole Botto, the head of a 150-year-old Italian textile mill called Successori Reda, said that “wool is having one of its best ever moments, driven by millennial demand for sustainable products”.

Successori Reda’s traditional market of producing fine suiting fabrics for companies, including Hugo Boss, Canali, Armani and Ralph Lauren, comprises nearly 85% of its business and is expected to continue to grow over the next five years.

The use of wool, however, has spread from high fashion through to activewear and footwear, boosting the demand for especially Merino wool. The National Wool Growers’ Association (NWGA) of South Africa recently reported that Merino wool is now used for leisure and sport products alike – global companies such as Adidas, Nike and New Balance all use Merino wool in their ranges. Merino wool is also commonly used by companies specialising in outdoor products. – Ursula Human, FarmBiz

For more information, contact Christine Taylor on 041 451 0481 or christine.taylor@smza.co.za.

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