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Merino Spearheads Apparel Company's Export Growth

New Zealand merino, long recognised as one of the world's finest natural fibres, is a key factor in the export growth of Survival Apparel.

By tightly controlling the supply chain from farm gate to finished garment, Survival Apparel is assured of the finest quality merino. Value is being added by different manufacturers along that supply chain.

Finding the technical expertise to ensure the best quality has not been easy. Because of the lack of investment in the New Zealand textile industry over the last 20 years much of the knowledge has been lost.

Mary Devine, chief executive of Survival Apparel, said that the input of Finespun Wools of New Zealand has been crucial. The Christchurch-based company was established four years ago and since then has undergone tenfold growth, the equivalent of doubling production every year for those four years.

Mark Anderson, general manager of Finespun Wools, said that it had always been his passion to produce superfine New Zealand merino yarns. His family had had a long involvement in the industry.

"Almost by chance I was introduced to Dal Jung, a Korean who had emigrated to New Zealand to retire and play golf. Internationally recognised as a world expert in textile engineering, he had 30 years experience in research and development including a post as technical director (Asia) for the International Wool Secretariat.

"He came to New Zealand because he liked our golf courses but his real passion was merino wool which he believes is the finest in the world. He said he would give the last 10 years of his working life to help establish a world quality mill in this country.

"Growth over the last four years has been amazing. The potential is even more frightening. However, one of the things that is holding us back is the lack of training infrstructure. We are having to send our staff to Melbourne for training. For these young people this is not just a job but a sustainable and satisfying career path," Mark Anderson said.

Helping the company in its growth was the Asian crisis of three years ago. This allowed the company to purchase, at very reasonable cost, modern machinery for the new mill. Setting up a modern mill would have otherwise cost tens of millions of dollars.

"Merino is the quality end of the wool business and we need to ensure that we have access to modern machinery and the best knowledge. Dal Jung and the Asian crisis gave us access to both."

Merino's recent popularity has been mirrored by the quality of the wool being grown in New Zealand. Twenty years ago the New Zealand merino flock was characterised by 21 micron wool. Now the average has dropped to under 19.

"New Zealand merino is recognised as the best because the fibre lengths are very long and uniform, they seldom break and the wool is whiter and brighter than that grown in other countries. These longer and stronger fibres can be finer than Cashmere yet they sell at a fraction of the price."

Survival Apparel uses superfine merino (less than 19 microns) and fine merino (less than 21 microns). One of the new Merino by Survival garments, for example, contains 10kms of yarn. In fact, one sheep's fleece of 5kgs can be spun into a yarn that could run the length of the South Island.

After leaving the farm gate the merino is scoured at Ashburton. NZ Tops in Timaru will then card and comb the wool, removing any short fibres and ensuring that the fibres are all parallel. Finespun Wools then draws the fibres, making them finer and finer, before spinning into yarn. This yarn is then knitted into fabric which is then processed into Merino by Survival garments.

"Our desire has always been to create a sustainable, long-term industry based around merino wool. We have supply contracts with some of New Zealand's best merino growers such as Earnscleugh, Lake Hawea, Long Acre and Shalimar stations and Heathstock Downs. This means that they can plan and invest with confidence, as we can. This in turn has spin-offs for Ashburton Scour, NZ Tops, knitting companies such as Argyle Fabrics (we need the new name here) and the various CMT companies that Survival Apparel uses. Throughout all these industries there are career paths for young people to follow," Mark Anderson said.

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