MARKET SURVEYS clearly indicate that wool’s customers are demanding lighter, softer products. But very little of the Australian wool clip is at this end of the market (see the table). In contrast, wool’s competitors- cotton and synthetics – are able to supply fibres which meet this demand. So the question arises, ‘How much of the wool clip should go finer, and what advantages are there in trying to produce wool with a diameter approaching that of our competitors?’. Project Leader, Gary Robinson, of CSIRO Wool Technology said the project was established to determine whether such ‘ultrafine’ wool offers any significant product advantages beyond those of the finer edge of the current clip, say 16.5 to 17 micron. It was also important to establish if there were any particular problems in processing these very fine wools.

To answer these questions a number of woven and knitted products were produced from wools at the ultrafine end (14.8 micron) and superfine (17.5 micron) end of the Australian wool clip. The products, selected after discussions with leading fashion designers, were:

  1. woven Coolwool suiting (the industry ‘standard’);
  2. underwear (are the ‘next to the skin’ properties OK?);
  3. a copy of a woman’s cashmere coating (can we compete for softness?);
  4. a lightweight jersey from the finest spinnable yarns (can we push the limits and produce a product which competes with the very popular lightweight cotton jersey?); and
  5. conventional 14g knitwear for pilling tests (to test whether ‘pilling’, the little balls of wool which can gather on pullovers, is a problem with these products).

The wools used in the study were selected from the same flock at Armidale in NSW. The ultrafine wools were selected from specially sorted fleeces, while the superfine wools were from a random batch of fleeces.

Gary Robinson noted that, ‘no real difficulties were encountered in scouring, combing and spinning the wools but it became apparent that extra care is required in handling these very fine wools during the finishing processes’. As expected the ultrafine wools were very prone to felting or shrinkage during handwashing but Gary was somewhat surprised to find that in the case of the ultrafine wools a phenomenon known as ‘dry-felting’ occurred: when the fabric felts even when it is not in water. ‘This phenomenon has not been encountered before and may be a significant problem for such fine wools’, said Gary.

Results of the product tests:

  • Fabrics from the ultrafine wool were always preferred to those from the superfine wool, but this advantage was not great enough to warrant any price differential.
  • No differences were detectable in wearer comfort of either the woven women’s trousers or of lightweight knitted underwear.
  • The ‘cashmere’ copy from the ultrafine wool was a very good imitation of the ‘real thing’.
  • The lightweight jersey was also a good product.
  • Pilling of the ultrafine knitwear was a major problem and significantly worse than superfine knitwear

In this issue of The Wool Press: