Wool is back! Where had it gone?

South lobby of the Merchandise Mart showcasing Herman Miller sofas in Maharam wool plaid fabric, Neocon 2013.

Herman Miller sofas upholstered in Marharam wool plaid fabric.

It was impossible to escape the overwhelming presence of wool at Neocon 2013. The yearly contract textiles and furniture fair at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago was awash in wool and particularly felt. This textile lover’s heart sang with joy at seeing almost every surface that wasn’t strung with mesh covered in wool. Panels and inventive conversation nooks were constructed, even molded in felt. Stools and benches festooned in a variety of felt qualities delighted at every turn. There were solid colors, heathered effects and even printed felt, but it wasn’t just felt. The entire front lobby was filled with Herman Miller sofas covered in a new Marharm wool plaid in a dazzling array of colors that would have, and probably did, make any Scotsman weep with joy. High end jobbers HBF Textiles and Knoll Textiles introduced novel designs and qualities in wool that I took to be a clear sign that wool is on the ascendence. But where had it gone? Why was this recent proliferation of wool so noteworthy?

Wool texture design Knitwork from HBF Textiles - woven in New Zealand

Luxurious wool design Knitwork from HBF Textiles

I have a few theories about that. First, I think was a point in the 1980’s when there wasn’t much innovation happening at the mills. Wool had been the workhorse fabric for contract textiles for two or three decades. Mills were complacent and designers bored. Production of apparel fabrics which had been the bread and butter of the wool mills, was moving off shore and they were losing their financial stability and resources to innovate. Eventually the whole industry collapsed. Maybe 2-3 woolen mills remained in the country after dozens closed during the last century. In their place, mills not dependent on wool yarns hit a creative spurt and were floating new ideas across the design community, trying cotton and rayon yarns to make more refined looking designs with yarns that allowed additional pattern and styling options. Jhane Barnes blasted the doors open with ground breaking collections for Knoll in the 1980’s. Her use of novelty yarns made everyone sit up, take notice and begin to push the envelope. At the same time Sina Pearson, with Unika Vaev in those days, was exploring using traditional tapestry constructions, typically woven with cotton yarns, in unconventional and inspiring ways. Would these ‘new’ fibers perform in contract and corporate use? Well, of course they did, when used in carefully constructed fabrics, and suddenly the design community had a huge new palette of yarns, fibers, constructions, and patterns to work with. That exuberance of experimentation and exploration continues still.

Innovation eventually returned to the wool industry, as well as an interest in the heavy textures popular in the 1970’s. A surging enthusiasm for mid-century modern design and styles has brought with it a desire for simpler fabrics, clean, clear color and rich texture. Wool meets those requirements perfectly. Forward-looking companies like Buzzispace are inventing new ways to work with wool almost daily it seems and Etsy offers many options for products designed with wool in mind on the craft, home furnishings and accessories side. It looks like wool is here to stay for a while and beyond my selfish interest (I represent 2 mills who produce wool fabrics), I am delighted this magical, versatile and sustainably produced, authentic textile is enjoying the spotlight again.

Wool phone booths and felted stools at Buzzispace, Neocon 2013

Phone booths and stools at Buzzispace, Neocon 2013

So much more to say about wool and be assured, I will be saying it soon.

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