British sheep

LONDON — Even as the U.K. entered its third national lockdown this week to stop the spread of a mutant strain of the coronavirus, the wool industry is hoping the business can return to some form of normality by the third quarter of 2021.

The price of strong wool, which is on average around 50 pence, or $0.68, a kilo at the moment, and which is mainly produced in the U.K. and New Zealand by cross-bred sheep for the furnishing and hospitality sectors, has seen a sharp decline since the pandemic.

Peter Ackroyd, president of the International Wool Textile Organisation and chief operations officer of Prince Charles’s not-for-profit organization Campaign for Wool, said the contract business, which relies on wool carpets and furnishing for hotels, casinos, exhibitions, office spaces, airlines and cruise ships, has been dead since the beginning of 2020.

As more people began to work from home, demand for domestic carpet increased quite dramatically, but not enough to compensate for the lack of business in the contract sector, Ackroyd noted.

“There is every support hopefully being given to farmers during the current crisis, and we have programs in the Campaign for Wool to promote and to push for people to make an ecological choice, but I can’t promise any upturn in demand for British wools until we see some sign of recovery in the contract market,” he said.

Farmers Harry Parker, Ben Blackmore Dozens of Sheep grace the Iconic Saville Row to promote the launch of Wool Week and Campaign for Wool.

Farmers Harry Parker, Ben Blackmore with dozens of sheep grace Saville Row to promote the launch of Wool Week and Campaign for Wool.  Courtesy

He is less worried about the fashion side of the wool business. The price of merino wool, which is softer and used mainly in garment manufacturing, and which is produced in Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Uruguay, is around 12 Australian dollars, or $9.18, per kilo.

“The fine wool price has stabilized. It was at its highest in 2019 for 20 Australian dollars per kilo. The price dropped down to nine Australian dollars per kilo, but then we saw things coming back, slowly,” he said. “We have to attribute most of this to demand from China. Between 75 to 80 percent of the merino wool is primarily processed in China. They have been buying quite a large amount.”

The collapse of the formalwear market was the reason behind the drop in the merino wool price. He warned that the ongoing China-Australia trade dispute is also a cause for concern in 2021.

“This is all to do with the fact that there are fewer weddings and funerals, no formal events or business dinners. The big wool manufacturers in Italy, the U.K., Portugal and China have been suffering quite dramatically, and their ability to compensate for this with other types of wool is not easy,” he added.

Ackroyd said the wool industry has made bold efforts to bring wool to other types of applications, particularly in underwear, activewear, and athleisure markets, which was unknown to wool ten years ago.

“There is some compensation, but I don’t see any massive return to stability in the wool price or production until the formal market shows some signs of return,” he added, “We had a long crisis. We have a long absence from the retail market. But there is no quick fix.”

His prediction is that trade-fair business, which is very important to weavers and spinners of Europe and China, will hopefully return to quasi-normality in the third or fourth quarter in 2021, and definitely in the third or fourth quarter in 2022, when trade fairs will come back, and sampling will begin seriously for fall 2023 in retail.

Jenny Urquhart, chairman at Johnstons of Elgin, and The Prince of Wales.

Jenny Urquhart, chairman at Johnstons of Elgin, and The Prince of Wales. 

There is also hope that a lower wool price will encourage more designers and brands to use wool in their collections. In fact, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Campaign for Wool, it ran a student design competition during the pandemic with 107 submissions from 17 universities across the globe. It also partnered with 12 brands and retailers, such as Anderson & Sheppard, Hackett and Marks & Spencer to sell students’ designs as well as offering placements opportunities.

In Ackroyd’s view, investing in wool is making a contribution to the eco-balance of the world.

“Wool is biodegradable, goes back into nature, doesn’t pollute in the sea, doesn’t produce microplastics, it’s very very eco-friendly. That wool movement in many ways, encouraged by the Prince of Wales, echoes the movement for a new reset that has been very strong during COVID-19. Achieving something with an ecological balance is a pretty positive move,” he added.