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Developing Natural Easy Care fabrics

Lightweight, easy care wool fabrics have been made possible by new developments in spinning technology, and they’re meeting consumer demand for more functional fabrics. Discover how Natural Easy Care wool fabrics are developed.

How the idea started

The collaborative research project to develop lighter weight wool fabric was based at AgResearch in Christchurch and funded by Australian Wool Innovation Ltd. (AWI). They wanted to attract new end-users for Merino wool.

Wool faces tough competition from the continuous development of lighter weight synthetic fibres, some of which have similar comfort properties to wool. For the wool industry to remain viable, researchers needed to develop new fabrics to meet changing consumer needs.

The problem with traditional wool fabric

Wool is a very comfortable fabric to wear because of its breathability, good insulation and moisture absorption properties. The problem with traditional wool fabrics is that they’re relatively thick, can cause itching when worn next to skin and they’re difficult to care for – they need to be hand washed or dry cleaned.

The key advantage wool has over synthetics is that it’s a natural fibre. This meets the growing demand for using renewable resources and more sustainable practices.

New technology spins finer, stronger wool yarn

New developments in spinning technology in 2002 were the breakthrough that made lightweight wool fabrics possible. A simple device called Solospun™, developed by New Zealand and Australian researchers, changes the structure of wool yarn during the spinning process. It makes a single strand of yarn more abrasion-resistant and weavable, eliminating the need to twist two strands together for a stronger yarn. This makes a finer, lighter fabric possible, with the added advantage of cutting out a processing step.

After testing, researchers also found the fabric has good dimensional stability and machine washability. This sparked ideas for other applications for the fabric.

Get information sheet: Natural Easy Care fabrics

Choosing the wool fibre

The choice of wool for NEC fabrics was critical to its success. Researchers chose Merino wool because they needed a fine fibre with a good mean fibre length – very few short fibres – to withstand the weaving process. Weaving applies a lot of stress to the yarn because, as the reed moves to and fro, it causes a lot of abrasion, and short fibres rub up and cause pilling.

Reducing short fibres also reduces the surface hairiness and prickle factor in the fabric, which is important for fabrics worn next to the skin.

Developing the fabric: 3 key stages

Developing the fabric was an iterative process that involved ongoing modelling and refining of parameters at each processing stage:

  • Spinning – creating the yarn structure to make it weavable as a singles yarn.
  • Weaving – determining the weave density to give the performance properties required.
  • Finishing – refining the processes so the yarns don’t move during fabric washing and drying.

Protecting the intellectual property

There is no patent for NEC fabrics because there are a number of lightweight worsted fabrics made from singles yarns, and some of them fall just outside the boundaries of NEC fabrics. If there were a patent, it would be difficult to protect the NEC technology.

Instead, the knowledge remains a trade secret owned by Australian Wool Innovation Ltd. (AWI) who funded the research.

Specifications a trade secret

The trade secret behind NEC fabric is like the recipe for making it and involves the detailed specifications for the yarn, weaving and finishing processes. Specifications include the fibre type and diameter, number of fibres in the yarn cross-section, how many threads per inch in the length and width directions for weaving, and fabric finishing.

Transferring the technology

Other companies use their best knowledge to develop lightweight fabrics like NEC, but they are not the same because they don’t know the exact specifications.

To make NEC fabrics, companies must sign up to use Australian Merino wool, then Australian Wool Innovation Ltd. (AWI) contracts AgResearch to transfer the technology to the company. AgResearch provides the knowledge and support for the company to set up production and then does ongoing testing of production samples to ensure consistent quality.

AgResearch also supply the Solospun™ rollers for making the yarns.

Get information sheet: Testing Natural Easy Care fabrics

Promoting NEC fabrics

NEC fabrics were initially developed for business shirts, and they are already in commercial production in top worsted mills overseas. As researchers realised the potential of these fabrics for other markets like women’s wear, they thought of novel ways to promote it.

AgResearch provided fabrics to a number of top New Zealand fashion designers who made a range of women’s wear garments. They showcased these garments in AgResearch’s runway show at the 2008 Air New Zealand Fashion Week.

The show was a great success, and many designers wanted more fabric that has to be sourced from overseas mills where the technology has been transferred. This has taken the message that NEC fabrics are suitable for women’s wear beyond New Zealand. As a result, there have been inquiries from outside New Zealand to source the material or gain access to the technology for production.

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