A new wool and rice straw blended upholstery fabric, which has been developed by a Wellington company, goes into commercial production next year with the potential to create significant demand for New Zealand crossbred wool, while helping solve a massive air pollution problem in China.
The Formary is a Wellington textile design and development company that creates solely sustainable interior textiles. It already has a track record with its WoJo® upholstery fabrics brand created from recycled jute fibre from coffee sacks blended with New Zealand wool.
But the wool-rice straw blended textile appears to have a much bigger future. One of The Formary’s co-founders Bernadette Casey said the production runs out of China are projected to be very significant.
Next week she will visit the top 10 North American furniture manufacturers and distributors to show their prototype samples and start building interest and demand. Early in the New Year they will spend up to three months working with their Chinese manufacturing partners in Zhejiang to fine tune the production process and commercialise the product.
After that they will be confirming orders in the United States and Europe with the commercial production runs expected to start around May or June.
Ms Casey said a Federal tax rebate is available for US companies that use energy efficient certified sustainable products in their refurbishments or new builds (LEED certification) and one European retailer has expressed interest in taking The Formary’s entire initial production, even before commercial fabric samples are available.
The new textile called Mibu®, will be woven in China under a recently signed memorandum of understanding between The Formary and its manufacturing partner Zhejiang Furun Textile Company.
The 70 percent wool-30 percent rice straw woven fabric has the potential to use all of the wool New Zealand can grow in the mid 26 to 30 micron range, while at the same time helping reduce China’s massive air pollution problem caused by burning waste straw after the rice harvest.
“We can scale up the production runs very quickly and if early indication of demand is correct we will have to source 26 to 30 micron wool globally to fill our orders.
“Each year China disposes of 200 million tonnes of rice straw with the majority of it being burnt. It’s quite common for the smoke and ash pollution to get so bad they have to close their airports, so the Chinese see this as a solution to a problem as much as a manufacturing opportunity,” Ms Casey said.
The Formary was started four years ago by Ms Casey, a textile and design specialist based in Wellington, and Gisborne designer Sally Shanks with the development of WoJo®.
The product was launched in London and caught the eye of the Prince Charles, who is leading a global Campaign for Wool and he awarded the directors his Sustainable Development Award, while Kevin McCloud from the British television show Grand Designs gave WoJo® a Green Hero Award as one of the 10 best Eco products on the market.
Ms Casey said the Wellington City Council and the Zhejiang Economic and Information Technology Commission had been enormously helpful recognising the opportunity and getting the manufacturing project off the ground.
"The Formary's latest success is another great result for their sustainable business, building economic success while reducing pollution and waste," said Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown. "The business relationship with the Furun Textile Company highlights the importance of our region's relationship with the Zhejiang Province and our strategic economic partnership we formed between our regions with 2012's Memorandum of Understanding."
The rice straw fabric cost about the same as other wool blend upholstery materials, but the high silica content of straw enhances the existing flame resistant properties of wool, a stark contrast to the oil-based synthetic products that dominate the market.
Ms Casey said they chose Zhejiang Furun Textile company because of its capability and track record in second generation textiles.
“Wool is a brilliant carrier for other fibres, while the straw fibre enhances the properties of wool, such as improving flame resistance and durability, making the fabric more hard wearing,” she said.
With an idea so big, how does The Formary protect its intellectual property?
The Formary has taken a patent out on its idea, but Ms Casey said it was also important for companies to build trust and integrity with their partners.
Ms Casey said good ideas can never be totally protected and people very quickly build on them with second and third generation versions “because that’s how things evolve and you have got to be pragmatic.”
“On top of that you build the brand and promote your product. Being first to market gives you an advantage, because you can build demand ahead of your competitors.”
Ms Casey said food production is projected to double in the next 40 years to meet growing demands from an additional 2 billion people on the planet, making it logical that arable and productive land producing single-purpose fibre crops like cotton would have to give way to dual purpose crops that produced both food and fibre.