Our Journey From Sheep to Shop
To get to New Zealand from London, you need to change more than your watch dials. It takes a few planes and maybe a hotel or two on the way there. Usually, a day or two in Singapore or Hong Kong. And once you get there you realise you are exactly 12 hours ahead of home. Make the mistake of calling someone during your lunch break and see what happens.
I left October 2nd 2014 and arrived 3 days later to Auckland, NZ for a week-long trip to the South Island merino farms. I’ve loved wearing base-layers, middle-layers or any-layers for over a decade, so getting the chance to go all the way to the beginning of the supply chain, was both an honour and an education. I had a good grasp of the technical side of things. What micron is and why a 17.5 is a good balance for technical-wear. Or the process from scouring to roving or how expensive and complicated a merino fabric printer can be (over $1m sitting in an air-conditioned 40sqm room by the way). What I didn’t know was how scientifically precise growing a flock is and how vast merino farms can be. To put it in perspective: the smallest farms are 1 square kilometer. The biggest ones 400 square kilometers. The average ones 100 square kilometers. Basically, as small as the City of London or half as big as New York City, imagining this spread across a varied terrain of flat land and steep sub-alpine mountains. The big farms need helicopters, a few days and few foot soldiers dotted in small cabins found across the land, in order to herd the sheep back to the low lands from the mountains during winter.
"It is breathable, naturally fire resistant, odour resistant, a temperature regulator, it provides UV protection and is 100% biodegradable, to allow for the animal to “wear” it – so to speak"
In these ragged lands, 700 Merino growers manage 3.3 million sheep and the space available to roam is big enough for them to mate and grow their wool uninterrupted. There is always a story of a sheep that roamed so far away that once it made its way back (skipping a year of shearing that is), it was carrying its weight in wool. To say that Merino sheep are hardy, is an understatement. They are well suited to the high altitudes and mountainous landscapes, where temperatures can range from 35°C in summer to -15°C in winter. And that’s what makes merino fabrics so unique. It is breathable, naturally fire resistant, odour resistant, a temperature regulator, it provides UV protection and is 100% biodegradable, to allow for the animal to “wear” it – so to speak - forever. These attributes are not added during manufacturing but come from Merino wool’s natural characteristics.
During my trip 4 years ago (or 1 year before K&T launched), I visited 3 farms, practiced 10 seconds of shearing (and failed), had long conversations over dinner in a couple of these small cabins with a number of scientists, growers and fabric suppliers and got even more excited about this miraculous fibre, designed by nature and not by engineers like myself. For thousands of years, nature has been carefully crafting the original performance fibre, to allow sheep to breathe and live. And once wool is shed it biodegrades almost 90% in 12 months and 100% a few months later. Engineered synthetic yarns might be cheaper, but not as resilient, super soft, thermoregulating or environmentally friendly as merino. And they are certainly smellier after one wear.
"Livestock farming and ranching is not easy ... weather, disease challenges and predators can impact livelihoods. In spite of these challenges, farmers raise livestock out of a labor of love and an inborn fondness for animals"
The purpose of my trip was two-fold. First was to verify the origin of the wool that King & Tuckfield was to source. Things like farming system sustainability and animal welfare. The second was to introduce the brand to the farmers, explain the reason it started and outline demand plans. Merino was and continues being the central fabric to King & Tuckfield’s backbone story.
There are 4 stages of production between grower and brand. Topmaker, spinner, weaver and of course garment maker. 8 in total if you count brokering, combing, treatment and dyeing. And independent bodies in all merino countries (Australia, New Zealand, S. Africa, Argentina and Uruguay), that facilitate and verify the transactions between all this supply chain and the brands. So, to be able to spend a few days with representatives from these stages was time well spent for all. Having visited more than 20 countries and over 50 mills and factories through my sourcing career, I never had the luxury of time or the opportunity to sit down and talk with representatives from the chain of custody, bringing to life what I have only experienced as a flowchart. This very trip is a testament to how transparent and caring towards the environment the merino wool community is.
Livestock farming and ranching is not easy. It is physically demanding, the hours tend to be long and there are no vacation days. Many factors which cannot be controlled such as weather, disease challenges, and predators can impact livelihoods. In spite of these challenges, farmers raise livestock out of a labor of love and an inborn fondness for animals.
The King & Tuckfield merino product traces its way back to some of these NZ farms I visited. I cannot say for sure if the top you’re wearing originated from the wool growing at the back of this little fella, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it does, given the life expectancy of a sheep on these farms.