International Wool Industry Comes to the U.S.
May 18, 2012

The 81st annual International Wool Textile Organization Congress (IWTO), themed WOOL IN THE CITY, commenced on May 7 in New York City. The conference was hosted by the American Wool Council, a division of the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI), with 249 attendees from 23 countries and provided a forum for all segments of the wool industry to discuss trends and new opportunities. Attendees participated in sessions that focused on both technical advancements in wool processing as well as changes in marketing and product positioning. 
 
The opening session included a keynote address from renowned U.S. designer, Joseph Abboud. Abboud, who uses wool in almost 80 percent of all his collections, spoke to the congress about his inspirations, HMX Group Inc. and his "love affair with wool." 
 
From his days as a design director at Ralph Lauren, to the development of his own collection and now as chief creative officer at HMX, Abboud says that wool has been the foundation for each one, citing, "I can't imagine a world without wool. 
 
"Wool has given me a new way to see fashion in the world," said Abboud, who sources domestically, as well as globally, and still constructs some suit styles in the United States. "There is an ever-growing desire for those organic elements from our world that has nurtured, clothed and sheltered us from the beginning of history. What better example is there than wool--natural, renewable, sustainable." 
 
Abboud set the tone of the congress by discussing the need for wool products to be available at all levels of retail distribution and easily accessible to all generations. 
 
"There is no replacement for wool, but it is our obligation to find new ways to bring it to the market for younger consumers who are just learning what wool is. The industry needs to find a way to address the creativity in design." 
 
Relaying the situation of the U.S. sheep industry, Peter Orwick, ASI executive director, said, "We have experienced stronger markets. We need to take advantage of the unique possibilities of wool and promote the U.S. supply base. In the United States, farms create 18 jobs for every 1,000 sheep. This is a unique story that can be marketed by global brands and retailers." 
 
John Fernsell, founder of IBEX Outdoor Clothing, closed the commercial suppliers forum speaking about the need for the wool industry to better communicate wool's performance qualities and relay wool growers' passion to the consumer. 
 
"I actually like the price of wool today," he said, citing that the grower has experienced rising costs to produce the fiber but for a long time did not see price increases at the farm gate, which lead to a downsizing of the flock. 
 
"I'm thinking I am going to need a lot more wool and I am seeing the supply go down; this is not a sustainable equation," Fernsell stated saying the news of efforts to grow the flock is music to his ears. 
 
To address the higher costs, Fernsell believes the industry needs to come together to better market wool products, stating, "We need to tell our story better." 
 
Fernsell relayed to ASI that the availability of the wool superwash equipment was very important to his company in seeking out American wool for the IBEX products. 
 
This year's session concerning supply and demand was moderated by Chris Wilcox, ASI meeting speaker who is with the National Council of Wool Selling Brokers of Australia. Technical wool sessions were also presented as IWTO sets the international standards for raw wool testing methods and equipment. The fashion and retail portion of the program provided the audience with insights into market opportunities. 
 
ASI director of wool marketing, Rita Kourlis Samuelson, says she is pleased with the U.S. wool-apparel companies' participation in the congress in addition to the other segments of the industry and said, "The industry is so passionate about wool. Wool is truly a natural, high-performance fiber with a richness that improves over time. The congress served to inspire an industry representing a fiber that is positioned to be rediscovered for its many attributes including breathability, fire resistance, easy care and comfort." 
 
Peter Ackroyd, president of IWTO, concluded the congress and stated, "It was pleasing to hear so many upbeat and optimistic presentations about the return of wool in floor coverings, furnishings and fashion. Several keynote speakers at the congress underlined the absolute necessity to embrace social media and networking to pass on wool's unrivalled message to younger consumers."