Wool and Knitwear in New Zealand: A Brief History

Wool and Knitwear in New Zealand: A Brief History

Sheep farming has been one of our most important agricultural industries for nearly 200 years, and New Zealand is renowned for its world-leading fibre and beautiful knitwear. Today, we delve into the rich history of wool in New Zealand.

How it started

Sheep farming was first introduced to New Zealand in 1773 – but it wasn’t plain sailing. The two merino sheep which Captain Cook first introduced to the Marlborough Sounds, sadly didn’t survive for very long, so it took the work of many settlers to establish a successful flock, first of Merino then other breeds in the country. By the 1850s sheep farming was booming and for a further 130 years, it remained New Zealand’s primary agricultural industry.

Although centuries apart, the history of Untouched World very much intertwines with the history of New Zealand wool. Just as our brand story begins in Canterbury, so too does the story of New Zealand wool: the Canterbury Farmer’s Co-operative Association was established in 1880 to export locally produced wool overseas. It was the first of its kind in the country and is acknowledged for its role in the development of agriculture in the district. In addition, the Canterbury Plains were where the first substantial flocks of sheep grazed and later settlers even found the land to be full and had to move to higher ground.

A reputation for quality

After a shaky start then a triumphant boom, New Zealand secured its reputation as a leading wool producer. Studies have shown that New Zealand merino is uniquely fine, and it’s also known for its naturally pure white colour and clean fibres, which reflect the climate (nutritious soil, plentiful rain, and lots of sunshine too) in which the sheep live and thrive. It’s also a reflection of the care they receive, and New Zealand’s sheep farmers are renowned for complying with some of the highest welfare standards in the world. For example, the country was the first in the world to ban mulesing, a practice whereby farmers cut a portion of skin from the hindquarters without painkillers to prevent flystrike, a condition that can be controlled by other, kinder means.

There are also many programmes, industry groups, and standards which have emerged from New Zealand which focus on animal welfare, as well as environmental standards. For instance the accreditation programme behind ZQ and ZQRX accredited wool, both of which we use at Untouched World, were developed by the New Zealand Merino Company, who also worked with Textile Exchange to develop the Responsible Wool Standard.

An environmental heavyweight

New Zealand wool isn’t just a win for quality, it’s a win for the environment too. It is, of course, a natural material which means it will not pollute the environment with microplastics or exist as waste for decades after it has been discarded, but it has other environmental benefits too. One of the foremost benefits is that it’s a regenerative product and when it returns to the earth it will release valuable nutrients back into the soil. The process of cultivating wool can be regenerative too, helping to regenerate the soil, boost biodiversity, conserve water and protect native species. Programs such as ZQRX can help accelerate the regenerative properties of wool cultivation further by providing guidelines for how to embrace regenerative farming practices and measuring progress and outcomes.

New Zealand knitwear

A nation of wool should also, logically, mean a nation of wool knitwear and we are glad to now find ourselves in the company of a thriving and progressive network of brands, designers and creators who champion New Zealand wool across both fashion and homeware.

After the early 1980s, there was a decline in the number of sheep in the country and therefore the power and value of the industry declined too, but nevertheless we prioritised wool and natural fibres when we launched in the 1990s because we knew fashion could be a vehicle change - it could work in harmony with nature rather than against it. In staying on course and leading with our ethics, we threw our support behind New Zealand wool, creating beautiful durable knitwear which our very first customers still wear today. Now, as people become aware of the impact of synthetics and the benefits of natural fibres, we continue to lead the way and fly the flag for our signature lustrous local fibre, over 90% of which we source, ZQRX certified, from Glenthorne Station, home to healthy happy sheep which roam over 62,000 acres of Cantabrian high country.

When you know the history of your fibre, where it comes from, and how it benefits the planet, you can’t help but make a lasting connection with it.

Read our journal entry on the journey of our merino wool, from Glenthorne to garment, to learn more about the story behind our locally sourced fibre.