|Superwash Set to Increase Opportunity in Wool Chain
By BECKY TALLEY
Sheep Industry News Associate Editor
(November 1, 2010) Superwash has arrived in the United States, and with it comes increased opportunity for those all along the wool chain, from farm to fabric.
Purchased by The Sheep Venture Co. (SVC), the American Sheep Industry Association’s wholly owned for-profit company, through approval of loans by the National Livestock Producers Association’s (NLPA) Sheep Loan Fund Committee. The superwash equipment is currently under construction at Chargeurs Wool USA Inc. in Jamestown, S.C.
The equipment brings a washable wool process to the United States that is currently being done overseas. This type of wool processing will not only help fill domestic commercial wool orders but also maintain and assist in the use of American wool by the U.S. military. A demand for the product produced by this equipment has already been established since wool top is currently being shrink-resistant treated overseas for U.S. orders.
Once up and running, the wool-top shrink-resistant treatment (SRT) or superwash line will produce shrink-resistant wool top to be used by the U.S. wool industry in a wide variety of U.S. wool products. Wool shrinkage due to felting will be significantly reduced in wools treated on this production line. Garments made from this wool can be machine washed and dried, meeting Total Easy Care standards.
“By purchasing this equipment, the Sheep Venture Co. is filling a void that has been in the U.S. wool-processing sector for some time now,” explains Margaret Soulen Hinson, president of SVC. “Not only is this process key in developing wool clothing for our military, but domestic commercial companies will no longer have to ship their wool overseas for processing.”
The greatest concern of not having this process available in the United States is it severely limits the use of washable wool products by the military, which is American wool’s largest domestic customer. The provisions of the Berry Amendment require all textile processes and products to be entirely of U.S origin; otherwise they cannot be used by the Department of Defense (DOD). Prior to 2006 it was possible for some manufacturing processes to be performed offshore with final assembly completed in the United States. However, changes to the Berry Amendment effective in 2006 prohibited this practice. In the case of wool, it became impossible for domestic wool top to be shipped offshore, shrink treated and returned to the country.
“The U.S. military is the largest customer for domestic wool, and any efforts we can put forth to help the military to provide uniforms to U.S. soldiers is important,” says Rita Kourlis Samuelson, ASI wool marketing director about the SRT purchase. “American wool is fire resistant providing safety for soldiers and has antimicrobial properties, providing easy care for soldiers without access to washing machines.”
The Superwash Process
Superwash is a term applied to wool shrink-resistant treatments. The term comes from a performance standard developed in the 1960s by the International Wool Secretariat. Wool was considered to be ‘superwash’ if it could be machine washed and flat dried. As treatments matured the term came to be applied to the process itself versus the performance of the resulting garments. Today the superwash standard has been superseded by “Total Easy Care,” indicating that a garment is machine washable and can be tumbled dried on low settings. Today’s superwash line generally consists of equipment designed to expose wool fibers to a mild chlorine solution for a very short time. Chlorine exposure is followed by rinsing, application of a polymer resin and drying.
Chlorine exposure removes the protective outer layer from the wool fiber and smoothes the scale structure. Application of the polymer resin further smoothes the treated fiber which significantly reduces felting shrinkage caused by the interlocking of the wool’s scales. This allows for a comfortable, next-to-skin product that will not shrink when washed and dried using normal laundry techniques.
The process is applied to a sliver of wool top, which is created after the combing process and why the equipment is housed at Chargeurs, the only comber in the United States, and provides the equipment to be used by various U.S. mills and products. In addition, due to its scouring operations, the facility can treat the effluent from the superwash process.
“We supply top to people that spin so it makes sense to have superwash also in this combing plant,” says Diego Paullier, Chargeurs commercial manager, adding that the machine began construction in September and the set-up and training process will take a few months.
“We are hoping to start work the first of January,” he says.
Benefit to U.S. Wool Producers
“The shrink-resist process provides what is most important to our market – competition,” says Samuelson.
With more products that can be worn next-to-skin, and because of wool’s inherent properties, which are ideal for military clothing, the military is a more-active buyer of U.S. wool. All of this results in increased products and demand for wool.
Having various customers for U.S. wool is essential to long-term marketing. When one market uses less wool the other market is available, and competition is important to bring world market prices. The military provides the industry with a customer when international prices might not be as high.
Benefit to U.S. Wool Processing/Textile Manufacturing Companies
“It’s going to give us and all the industry more volume,” says Paullier. “It will give to all of us, including wool producers, a new market and more demand for American wool and more demand for American wool processing.”
As the first processor after wool leaves the ranch, Paullier says that he sees many possibilities opening up for the comber, both military and commercial.
“I think there are opportunities in both. Since we haven’t had a superwash facility in the United States, due to the recent Berry Amendment changes we couldn’t provide the military with products that are machine washable. Now, there is going to be an opening for first-base, next-to-skin layer products and whatever the military would like to make washable. This is also a big opportunity for us – it is kind of a new business and we will be looking for new markets,” he relates.
Chargeurs in the past has sent wool tops overseas to be shrink-resist treated for customers, but now hopes to do as much shrink-resist processing as possible in the United States, which may also open up the door for more commercial customers as well.
“The commercial business can be built on a quicker response, a better service and those that want to make superwashed products with American wool. We have people who want to work with American wool and would like everything to be done here in the United States,” he says, adding, “We need to get as much volume as possible for the new machine and we want to keep it running as much as possible.”
For Kentwool, having a U.S. source of superwash-treated wool offers many opportunities for their worsted wool yarn business.
“The domestic superwash wool will work well in the superwash-treated wool yarns that we currently produce for our hosiery and apparel markets. We and our customers are eager for this new superwash line to get into production,” says Tom Perkinson, sales manager at Kentwool.
There is a growing demand for “Made In America” expressed by many of our customers Perkinson adds, and with this new superwash line at Chargeurs in Jamestown, S.C., the entire domestic supply chain is completed. By not needing to move wool literally around the world to accomplish the superwash treatment, energy resources will be conserved and lead times will be shortened.
“The military is also providing new opportunities,” Perkinson notes. “There is much interest now within the military in the use of wool clothing due to wool’s natural attributes and advantages. The new superwash line provides the added dimension of washable wool fabrics.”
“We are looking forward to working with Chargeurs and the return of domestic superwash wool. It is great to see it back here in the United States,” Perkinson adds.
For Alamac American Knits, the next company in the wool textile manufacturing chain, having Superwash in the United States does two things that will present opportunities for the business.
First, it assures the military that there is a strong wool supply in the United States that can provide textiles for its needs says Mark Cabral, president.
For Alamac, more acceptance of the wool supply means more military contracts for fabric. Cabral says that after many years of work, he feels in the last seven months, the company has really landed some material projects with the military.
“ASI has worked with us the whole time, working with the material and getting the military familiar with wool. Superwash will help us jump leaps and bounds with this. I really do feel like things are starting to materialize. Generally, across the board, there is more of an acceptance factor of wool,” Cabral adds.
Second, relates Cabral, it provides another mechanism to offer a washable process. Alamac has worked extensively with ASI to create and refine the shrink-proofing process of wool in the fabric state to make wool washable. Cabral foresees both processes in demand, as more environmentally conservative groups will most likely stick with the shrink-proofing application in fabric form and other groups will want the superwash yarn.
The U.S. Military
Broad support for the equipment has been expressed by the wool industry and the U.S. military.
In 2009, SVC applied for a Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) grant from the U.S. Army to determine which wool shrink treatments were in use or being developed globally and ultimately to determine which might be best suited for the United States. SBIR awards research and development funds to small businesses to encourage them to explore their technological potential and innovate new technologies that will be made commercially available to the public. The program is meant to help small businesses compete with large enterprises that have more resources for research and development and subsequently stimulate the U.S. economy by encouraging the development and commercialization of new technologies. SVC also proposed to develop new fire-resistant products using washable wool to be supplied to soldiers facing burn risks from improvised explosive devices (IED) in Iraq and Afghanistan.
SVC won a “Phase I SBIR Grant” in early 2010 and completed Phase I work in July of this year. The U.S. Army was pleased with the work accomplished during Phase I and invited SVC to submit a proposal for a Phase II SBIR Grant. The proposal was submitted in mid August. SVC will be notified in mid November regarding the status of its proposal.
“The U.S. Army is committed to bringing wool to the soldier and has encouraged ASI and SVC’s efforts throughout the SBIR process,” says Mitch Driggers, ASI military wool consultant.
In addition, U.S. military support is indicated by having washable wool products under contract (including three products that could use more than 2 million pounds of wool in four years).
Wool in FREE
FREE (Fire-Resistant Environmental Ensemble) is a seven layer, flame-resistant clothing system designed to be adaptable into multiple configurations. The seven layers consist of 16 individual components and auxiliary items designed specifically to work together to provide U.S. soldiers with maximum fire protection while facing extreme climate conditions. FREE is the result of a multi-year research and development effort conducted by the US Army’s Program Executive Office Soldier. The development phase began in 2004 and culminated with the award of the production contract to prime vendor Atlantic Diving Supply (ADS) in the spring of 2009. Approximately 10 subcontractors partnered with ADS to produce and deliver the clothing system to soldiers all over the world.
FREE is of particular importance to the U.S. wool industry as a whole, from grower to completed garments. Of the 16 components in the system, five contain wool. A sixth item related to FREE, but not considered a part of the system, is also being procured in tandem with FREE.
“It’s a great business opportunity for us. One of the components is a wool T-shirt and brief made with fabric for next-to-skin base wear,” says Mark Cabral, president of Alamac American Knits. Alamac currently has two wool-containing products on test with the Army.
The ADS contract was awarded for one base year plus options for three more years and is valued at more than $1billion if all options are exercised.
“The contract is ‘indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity,’ which means that determining exact quantity for the contract is very difficult. However, it is expected that approximately two million sets will be produced consuming more than 1 million pounds of domestic wool,” says ASI military wool consultant Mitch Driggers.
The use of wool in these protective, utility uniform items marks the first time since the Korean War that wool has been included in new U.S. military utility garments.