Tuesday, 20 September 2016 10:55

Luxury garments from ‘stroppy’ sheep

Written by  Pam Tipa

Exclusive collections of fabrics and knitwear now being launched in the UK trace back to a very small but stroppy sheep farmed in the South Island and parts of Australia.

“You don’t want to get penned up with one,” says Keith Cowan, a director of Escorial Wool, commenting on the El Escorial sheep.

El Escorial farmers in New Zealand can earn twice the standard price of wool from the stroppy sheep. But they have to do a lot of work to ensure the finest quality, says Cowan.

Escorial wool, originating from the Spanish Royal flocks of El Escorial, has a name worldwide for producing luxury garments.

The Escorial distinction is in the fibre, performing as a naturally coiled spring. This gives unique qualities to Escorial fabric, making a lightweight garment of crease resistance and comfort.

Founded by NZer Peter Radford in 1998, Escorial Wool in February this year partnered with Yorkshire textile companies Joshua Ellis and Luxury Fabrics, both of whom have heritage and experience.

Cowan says told Rural News all the El Escorial sheep farmed under their brand are direct descendants of the flock of the same name from Spain. About 20 farms are involved, mainly in Marlborough and a few in Central Otago, plus Tasmania and Victoria.

Peter Radford brought pure-bred stock from Tasmania to NZ in 1987.

“They are small sheep, about two thirds the size of a normal Merino sheep and they are reasonably aggressive,” says Cowan. “They don’t have a particularly huge wool clip but the wool itself is very high crimp wool. It is those capabilities that we collect in the wool. We take that and exploit it all the way through the processing.

“It is a slow and elaborate process making the product on the way through. At every step you have to be careful so as not to lose all that exciting volume and crimp in the wool which gives it its lightweight and durable character.

“Because they are small sheep and they don’t have a particularly high wool clip, we pay the farmers a premium for the wool -- quite a lot over the market price; at times we have paid twice the market price.

“Because of that the farmers look after the wool. Because these sheep are so small they aren’t bred for their meat, they are bred for their wool.

“The farmers only put them on paddocks where the wool will not get a lot of vegetable matter in it. When we get the wool, we comb it more than you would with Merino wool to make sure it is free of vegetable matter.”

All the processing happens overseas. “Our industry unfortunately has gone,” says Cowan.

But wool down to this micron level has never really been processed in NZ. “We are dealing with between 14.5 and 17.5 micron and it is pretty hard to process that with the plant we’ve got here. In fact the 14.5 end we have to take to Italy.

“It is a nice little earner for farmers but they have to do a bit of work to look after the sheep. They have to do a lot of sorting to make sure the sheep don’t get contaminated within the gene pool.

“Most farmers will have other sheep as well. They have to be careful they don’t get contaminated and we look carefully for that.

“We have our own wool classer who goes around giving instruction on shearing and classing techniques and he also looks at the sheep before they are shorn to make sure they are sorted correctly.

“There is a lot of work in it; you don’t get a high value, high quality sweater or piece of fabric unless you do the work.

“In the last five years we have improved the quality of what we are doing tremendously. We are continuing to make inroads all the time.”

Cowan says they have some lovely product coming in the next few weeks.

Designers love it

“We love working with Escorial,” says Kristie Reeves, design director for Joshua Ellis.

“It has the luxurious feel of cashmere yet the natural durability of wool; Escorial has extraordinary performance properties.”

This season in the UK the rare Escorial wool will be showcased in the first complete collection in both worsted and woollen fabrics, woven in Yorkshire by partners Joshua Ellis and Luxury Fabrics.

For autumn winter 2017-18 Joshua Ellis will launch a range of Escorial wool coatings and jacketing fabrics, and a trans-seasonal line of luxurious Escorial wool shawls and scarves. Specialising in Escorial woven fabrics, Luxury Fabrics will showcase a collection of Escorial wool suitings, blazer and travel fabrics.

“Escorial is popular in markets where people understand real luxury,” says David Gallimore, managing director of Luxury Fabrics.

“It is a special fibre from a protected source, the lightweight, crease resistance, comfort factor makes Escorial the perfect travel fabric.”

Both the woven and woollen collections have been designed as a complete capsule to tell a story capturing the subtle British heritage combined with the Escorial history.

“Through our partnership with Joshua Ellis and Luxury Fabrics, the introduction of the complete Escorial collection is exciting; Escorial can now offer something versatile and unique to the customer,” says Peter Radford, founder and managing director of The Escorial Company.

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