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Thistles Give Mills The Pricker

Specialist wool processors from the Manawatu to Belgium are up in arms about thistle contamination in New Zealand wool.

Forced to employ staff to remove thistle parts from luxury carpets with tweezers, some spinners are seeking financial redress from their New Zealand suppliers.

WoolPro quality assurance manager Kelvin Whall says a wool shipment may be certified as having a vegetable matter (VM) content of only 0.1 per cent. But even at overall VM levels as low as this, in the bales there may be patches of thistle which can cause problems during yarn processing.

“Dry thistle heads don’t weigh very much, but they do a terrible amount of damage to the yarn,” Mr Whall says.

Thistle heads go right through the scouring process and literally explode at carding, spreading throughout the wool and ending up in the spun yarn.

Feltex Carpets Limited wool manager John Cleland, based at Marton in the Manawatu, is closer to growers than his overseas counterparts. So his is a simple solution: he only buys thistle-free wool with less than 0.1 per cent VM.

Farmers who meet this specification can be up to 40c a kg better off, but even this price premium doesn’t seem to be enough to get the message across.

“We’ve talked to farmers and they’ve said the premium we’re paying should be enough to warrant expenditure on thistle control and extra shed preparation, but thistles are everywhere,” he says.

“We recognise wool is a natural fibre and will have flaws, but the contaminant problem has become worse in recent years and it’s costing an increasing amount to clean the wool.”

As a first step, Mr Whall is calling for quality accredited growers to be particularly vigilant about controlling thistles on their properties and in removing them from their clip.

At the other end of the marketing chain, he’s encouraging spinners to source thistle-free quality assured wool directly from FQP-accredited exporters.

“In order to solve the issue, processors should be invited to enter into contractual supply arrangements with growers who are prepared to declare their wool free from thistle contamination,” he says.

“This would be a simple extension to our existing on-farm accreditation activities. Currently the woolshed is the only place where you can say with confidence that wool is free from thistle.”

Senior WoolPro appraiser Graeme Roddick says there is a clear market premium for low-VM wool.

“It’s not just Feltex. Growers selling through Woolnet and at auction can expect a premium of up to 40c a kg for wools, which in all other respects – such as colour, length and strength – meet the requirements of carpet spinners.”

He says thistle contamination has increased significantly since May this year.

“It’s probably due to two dry years in a row on the east coast, followed by a wet summer, and growers spending less on thistle control because of poor returns.”

Mr Whall says he knows of one Belgian spinner who has made two significant claims for thistle contamination following recent New Zealand deliveries. Other mills are complaining bitterly to Wools of New Zealand staff in Europe.

“You can’t explain to a mill in Belgium about droughts in New Zealand. When they see thistle contaminated yarn they know they will be facing big financial losses.

“Having gone in recent years from sourcing just 20 per cent New Zealand wool to nearly 65 per cent, the mill managers feel personally let down by New Zealand growers.

“Blaming growers or exporters is not entirely fair, because the existing sampling, testing, and sale systems make it almost impossible to give assurance that wool is free from thistle. New testing technologies provide some hope, but right now contractual commitment and quality verification on-farm is the only way.

“We need to be pursuing these options with real pace. There is no future in wool if we don’t meet the needs of our customers.”


For more information, please contact

Kelvin Whall, Tel 03 343 7918 or 025 530 619

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