3 questions with: Birgit Gahlen - The Woolmark Company
Birgit Gahlen is a textile engineer with more than 25 years of experience in the global wool supply chain, with a focus on research and product development. Birgit works as Research & Development Manager, Europe for The Woolmark Company, a globally known and established non-profit organization to research, endorse, and educate about wool.
We are in doubt there is anyone in the industry with more technical knowledge about wool than Birgit – imagine her as the ‘professor of wool’. She and The Woolmark Company team have helped us on many occasions with their expertise about this wonderful material for our developments.
We had the sincere pleasure to chat with Birgit about wool in our ‘3 questions with…’ interview series:
1. AEANCE: Birgit, you know we are massive fans of Merino Wool, especially in the application for our technical apparel. We remain to be deeply impressed, what can be achieved on a technical level with a natural material. May we ask you to summarize the benefits of merino wool when used as a performance material?
Birgit Gahlen: Merino wool is the world’s most technically advanced and original performance fibre. No other fibre can match all of Merino wool’s natural benefits, makes it the perfect choice for lower impact activities such as yoga and walking; higher impact activities such as running and cycling; and adventure activities such as climbing and sailing.
In almost every activity at every level, and in every climatic condition, people are benefitting from the extraordinary properties of Merino wool.
Soft next to the skin, the finer the wool the softer it is, Merino wool garments are breathable and have excellent moisture management. They transfer moisture vapour away from the body helping you keep cool and dry during exercise or hot weather.
Merino wool also offers excellent protection from extremes of temperature. It is an active fibre with a natural crimp which creates a lot of very small insulating air pockets, air is the most important isolator
Wool is the ultimate fibre that keeps us cool in summer and warm in winter.
Effective odor control is another key benefit of Merino wool. The fibre actually ‘locks away’ odor molecules from sweat and only releases them upon washing or refreshing overnight in humid air so your Merino clothes will remain fresh longer.
Merino wool works in total harmony with the wearer’s body due to the fibres’ excellent natural elasticity. When you’re exercising, you do a lot of stretching – and you want a garment that stretches with you and then returns to its natural shape. At microscopic levels, Merino fibres are like coiled springs, returning to their original state when pressure is released.
As a natural fibre, evolved over millions of years to protect sheep against the elements, Merino wool also has high UV resistance providing good protection from the sun.
2. AEANCE: Wool is a natural, renewable and biodegradable material by design. Would you outline your view on Merino Wool as an ‘eco-sustainable’ material for us?
Birgit Gahlen: Yes, wool is a natural, biodegradable and renewable fibre, making it the perfect choice for those seeking clothing that has a minimal impact on the environment.
Every year, sheep produce a new fleece, making wool a completely renewable fibre source. Wool is grown in the simple mix of sunshine, water, grass and fresh air.
Wool is made of a 100% natural biodegradable protein, similar to that found in human hair. When a wool product reaches its end-of-life and is disposed of, the wool fibre readily decomposes in soil, slowly releasing valuable nutrients and carbon back into the earth, acting like a fertilizer.
How often clothes are worn is the most influential factor in determining environmental impacts from clothing. Wool garments are on average kept in use for longer periods of time than garments made from other fibre types (and are very suitable for repair if needed).
In addition, research shows that consumers wash wool clothing less frequently than other fibre types, saving water, energy and detergent associated with laundering.
Wool’s attributes are so highly valued that, even after a garment has finished its long service life with one person, the fibre is still suitable to be kept in use. Wool is the most reused fibre on the planet of the major apparel fibres, with wool garments often preferentially donated for extended life.
Wool is also the most recyclable fibre on the planet. ‘Closed loop’ recycling involves high-value wool garments deconstructed to enable new yarns to be spun and new high-value garments fabricated. Meanwhile, ‘open loop’ recycling essentially ‘down cycling’, in which wool products are pulled apart and fabricated into cheaper non-woven products for insulation, padding, interiors etc.
As you can see, wool fits very well into a sustainable circular model of textile production that minimizes waste and pollution.
3. AEANCE: Can you look into the crystal ball for us please…what will the future bring for wool, especially for performance applications?
Birgit Gahlen: With the global fashion and textile industry under pressure from consumers and regulators to reduce its waste and pollution, there is a push for the supply chain to change its method of production from a wasteful ‘linear’ model towards a sustainable ‘circular’ model. As I have explained above, wool has a unique set of ‘circular’ features – such as being a renewable and biodegradable fibre, and suitable for reuse and recycling – which should make the fibre more sought after.
And while Merino wool performs like no other fibre in sporting and outdoor environments, its natural qualities also lend themselves perfectly to the design of comfortable and stylish leisurewear too activewear that can be used for non-active and casual, everyday use. This trend has been intensified by the COVID. Merino wool’s ability to combine comfort and flexibility with casual elegance makes it well placed to cater for this growing market.
I see more opportunities for wool as the trend moves more and more towards outdoor activities that you can do both in summer and winter– running , cycling , winter sports in general like skiing, etc.. As we try to avoid closed areas, the use of Merino wool will grow further.
The rise of seamless garment knitting and flat knitting technologies is helping brands use Merino wool to drive new and exciting opportunities in sports and outdoor markets. Whilst not new, these processes produce technical, functional garments in Merino wool apparel that have been gaining ground during the past few years and it has now reached a point where there are a greater number of options on the market. Seamless and flat knitting technologies are being employed to manufacture not only base-layer garments, but an extensive range of mid- and outer-layer garments.
With the versatility of knit structures and compression panel effects, garments can be engineered with reinforced zones to provide a more technically constructed, functional yet comfortable garment with cutting-edge style. New patterns have been developed that use body mapping – a design technique that enables different areas of the garment to be constructed to suit the shape, motion and functional requirements of the corresponding part of the body.
Merino wool in footwear is an example of another area which is seeing growth, with the high-performance attributes of the fibre giving consumers the natural edge. The success of wool in footwear lies not only in the fibre’s natural properties, but also in its ability to be constructed in a way that aids performance.
Merino wool is enjoying unprecedented interest in many areas and thanks to the continued development of new technologies and machinery there are unlimited opportunities for the fibre.
To learn more about The Woolmark Company, visit their website here.
To explore our Merino Wool garments, see the styles here.