The won­der of wool



EX­PORTER BEN WIL­SON was in a cus­tomer’s store in Tokyo, a high-end chain re­tailer, look­ing at the prod­uct he was there to sell. Sit­ting along­side Ben’s finest New Zealand sheep­skin, with its fi­bres straight and white, was its com­peti­tor, a 100 per­cent un­nat­u­ral, syn­thetic prod­uct. It struck Ben, with a jolt of sur­prise, that the two looked the same.

“The ironic thing was that we were spend­ing all this time, money and en­ergy con­vert­ing a nat­u­ral prod­uct into some­thing that ended up look­ing syn­thetic whereas the syn­thetic man­u­fac­tur­ers were try­ing to make their prod­uct look nat­u­ral.”

Although his com­pany was sell­ing sig­nif­i­cant quan­ti­ties of pro­cessed New Zealand sheep­skins to Asia (and still does), the star­tling re­al­iza­tion caused Ben to ask a key ques­tion: “Why don’t we just give peo­ple a prod­uct with en­hanced nat­u­ral char­ac­ter­is­tics rather than a prod­uct in which we have all but de­stroyed them?”

That was eight years ago and, on his re­turn home, his wife, who was run­ning their fledg­ling busi­ness Wil­son & Dorset (then called Wanaka Liv­ing), was in to­tal agree­ment. Amanda Dorset de­scribes her pas­sion for wool as bor­der­ing on weird. Her love of the fi­bre de­vel­oped dur­ing the five years she mar­keted Ice­breaker in the early days of the now-iconic New Zealand out­door cloth­ing brand.

If ever there was a cou­ple des­tined to do great things with wool, it’d have to be this pair. It was by nur­ture, rather than na­ture, that Amanda de­vel­oped this pas­sion – bring­ing wool’s nat­u­ral fea­tures into the spot­light in the cre­ation of fine ap­parel. She hadn’t started out in mar­ket­ing or any­where near wool; her fam­ily were in the den­tistry arena. Her Univer­sity of Otago law de­gree was fol­lowed by a few years in civil litigation with Gif­ford Devine in Hawke’s Bay, be­fore she set out for Lon­don to pay off her stu­dent loan by work­ing for Robert Wal­ters Le­gal, Price Water­house Cooper Con­sult­ing and IBM Con­sult­ing, as a man­age­ment con­sul­tant, then head­ing home to the Ice­breaker role.

Born to trade

Ben’s fa­ther Robert Wil­son, like his fa­ther be­fore him, fol­lowed in his fore­bears’ foot­steps help­ing to launch a num­ber of New Zealand’s key ex­port in­dus­tries. With close friend Sir Tim Wal­lis, he ar­ranged the first suc­cess­ful he­li­copter deer- re­cov­ery op­er­a­tion from the Matuk­i­tuki Val­ley that be­gan the ex­port of veni­son to Europe. He was also in­volved in the early stages of the sheep­skin and pos­sum- skin in­dus­try as well as other ex­port projects – from seafood and live lobster to gin­seng, deer vel­vet, nat­u­ral soap prod­ucts, cher­ries, dried flow­ers, honey and dairy prod­ucts among oth­ers. In con­junc­tion with Leroy Parker of Port Chalmers and Aus­tralian com­pany Auskin Group, he was in­stru­men­tal, 20 years ago, in the con­struc­tion of the Xuan­hua Tan­nery in In­ner Mon­go­lia. Build­ing and op­er­at­ing a tan­nery in China is not with­out its chal­lenges. “The en­ergy foot­print and en­vi­ron­men­tal bar the fac­tory has to meet in China is high – in fact equal to or higher than what we’d likely need to do if we were op­er­at­ing within New Zealand,” says Ben. “China has a mas­sive pol­lu­tion prob­lem which is why the com­pli­ance stan­dards are high and keep get­ting higher. This in­cludes ev­ery litre of wa­ter be­ing mon­i­tored by the cen­tral gov­ern­ment as it leaves the fac­tory.” To meet th­ese stan­dards, the fac­tory own­ers have in­vested mil­lions of dol­lars in wa­ter treat­ment and al­ter­na­tive- en­ergy so­lu­tions in­clud­ing a mas­sive so­lar hot- wa­ter sys­tem and con­vert­ing the fac­tory’s boiler from coal to nat­u­ral gas.

In Ben’s case, wool might well be found in the prised-apart strands of his DNA. Each of his pa­tri­lin­eal fore­bears for the past three gen­er­a­tions has been en­tre­pre­neur­ial with pri­mary prod­ucts. His great-grand­fa­ther, whose por­trait to­day af­fixes Ben with a beady eye from the wall of his of­fice, left the fam­ily farm at Amde­warra near Gee­long in Aus­tralia at the age of 20 with a car­pet bag, a good out­fit and a half sov­er­eign. He se­cured work on the Gee­long docks with a small cartage busi­ness trans­port­ing goods to the gold­fields in Bal­larat, Ararat and Bendigo. One of his jobs was to dump empty 400-gal­lon iron tanks (used for ship­ping per­ish­able goods) into the bay. In­stead he leased a small sec­tion on the fore­shore and neatly stacked the emp­ties. In a stroke of good for­tune th­ese be­came a valu­able com­mod­ity when Aus­tralia found it­self in the grip of a drought and he used the bar­rels to trans­port wa­ter.

The profit on this fledg­ling busi­ness went to char­ter a ship (the Os­car) to New Zealand along with his cartage drays, horses and sup­plies. Upon em­i­grat­ing to a new coun­try, Robert Wil­son was smart enough not to go chas­ing gold (this was the time of the Otago gold rush in the 1860s). Ar­riv­ing in Dunedin, he promptly sold all his goods for a hand­some yield gen­er­at­ing enough cap­i­tal to char­ter an­other ship which re­turned to the South Is­land town with suf­fi­cient sup­plies and wag­ons to start the R Wil­son & Co Mer­chant Trad­ing busi­ness.

Ben’s fa­ther, also called Robert Wil­son, who died late last year, was an ex­porter of al­most every­thing imag­in­able. “You name it, he prob­a­bly had his hand in ex­port­ing it at some stage. He was at the be­gin­ning of a lot of in­dus­tries.”

With mer­chan­dis­ing in his genes, Ben got ex­cited about tak­ing a nat­u­ral sheep­skin prod­uct to the world while Amanda saw the same po­ten­tial for wool within the in­te­rior-de­sign in­dus­try that she’d seen it ful­fill in the cloth­ing game. “I’m pas­sion­ate about wool and what it can bring to our most in­ti­mate spa­ces, our homes. We are sell­ing a prod­uct for a life­time and I get a lot out of en­gage­ment with cus­tomers who want a more nat­u­ral prod­uct with less pro­cess­ing, and more tac­tile things in their lives.”

Watch­ing peo­ple en­ter the Wil­son & Dorset shop in Wanaka has been an eye-opener. “Cus­tomers rush in with a mind­set of spend­ing two or three min­utes look­ing around. Once they feel the nat­u­ral warmth of the pieces, I see them ex­hale and re­lax. Their chil­dren run and cat­a­pult onto a shaggy bag and sit there stroking the fleece. Some­thing about the nat­u­ral fi­bre seems to calm peo­ple. I know it sounds cheesy and weird, but my pas­sion for wool is deep. It seems to slow and de-stress peo­ple.”

Nine years ago, Ben and Amanda had ev­ery rea­son to value the nour­ish­ing pow­ers of de-stress­ing when their el­dest child, Louis, was born with Down Syn­drome.

“We were in no way pre­pared for it and, even though we’ve had good fam­ily sup­port, it’s been a chal­lenge.” For the first few years, Amanda put the Wil­son & Dorset brand on the back­burner in or­der to fo­cus on giv­ing Louis the best start in life. It’s paid off and he is now at school at Wanaka Pri­mary with his sis­ter, eight-year-old Bess. The school works hard to in­clude him in ev­ery­day pri­mary-school life. He’s read­ing, com­mu­ni­cat­ing and the source of much pride to his par­ents.

Not every­thing is easy. Louis suf­fers from the se­vere sleep dis­tur­bance, sleep ap­noea, which com­monly ac­com­pa­nies Down Syn­drome. The house­hold is into its ninth year of bro­ken nights. “It’s a real chal­lenge,” says Amanda who val­ues the three nights a week of respite as­sis­tance they get. Even so, sleep is such a pre­cious com­mod­ity that they al­ways re­tire to bed early and any op­por­tu­nity for a sleep-in is ea­gerly taken. It’s a way of life they must fol­low to cope.

Wanaka has al­ways felt like home to Ben, but that’s only one of the rea­sons the cou­ple grav­i­tated here. They’d known each other in sec­ondary-school days in Christchurch and re­con­nected when Amanda, whose Ice­breaker role was based in Auck­land, joined a friend for a south­ern road trip that in­cluded at­tend­ing a house­warm­ing party in a re­mote town in south West­land.

As a he­li­copter hov­ered to de­liver a load of fresh cray­fish and veni­son, Amanda re­al­ized “shy, smil­ing Ben Wil­son” (whose house was be­ing ‘warmed’) and whom she re­mem­bered from school, wasn’t quite so shy af­ter all. The party at Han­nah’s Clear­ing, near the mouth of the Haast River, must have gone well and Ice­breaker (not want­ing to lose her) was happy for Amanda to move her role to Wanaka.

The town had al­ways laid claim to Ben’s heart. Even if it was not his of­fi­cial home, it had al­ways been his fam­ily’s hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion and, in his years of roam­ing New Zealand and the globe, he al­ways thought of it as home. Once Amanda moved south to be with him, they rec­og­nized that not only is the town cra­dled in the arms of splen­did nat­u­ral beauty, but its in­hab­i­tants are an in­ter­est­ing mix.

This is, says Ben, a com­mon story and part of their at­trac­tion to the place. “Al­most ev­ery­one in Wanaka has an in­ter­est­ing story. Many wear mul­ti­ple hats of­ten with jobs over­seas or in other New Zealand cities. It’s a unique set of peo­ple and I re­ally hope that, even with the fast-ris­ing prop­erty prices, that doesn’t change.”

In ad­di­tion to his fo­cus on Wil­son & Dorset, Ben is an ex­port­man­age­ment con­sul­tant work­ing with the Tal­ley’s Group (a pri­vate­ly­owned food ex­porter), a direc­tor of a so­lar-en­ergy com­pany in Cromwell called In­fi­nite En­ergy, and consults to Auskin Group which owns the Chi­nese-based tan­nery where all Wil­son & Dorset prod­uct is tanned.

To­day, he and Amanda live in the Dublin Bay home his grand­par­ents built for their re­tire­ment in the 1970s. It’s an ideal lo­ca­tion with a nine­minute school run and an 11-minute trip into the heart of town. “We have the best of both worlds; it feels peace­ful and se­cluded, yet we are min­utes from the thick of things,” says Amanda.

FAR LEFT: The house, orig­i­nally de­signed for Ben’s grand­par­ents, was ex­ten­sively ren­o­vated in 2016. It had no in­su­la­tion so was pre­vi­ously the cold­est house in Wanaka. LEFT: Bess cud­dles up to Slinky. “He thinks he’s a dog and rounds us all up for a walk to the lake,” says Amanda. BE­LOW: Ren­o­va­tions had a solid foun­da­tion since the house is made of box- poured con­crete. OP­PO­SITE: The Wil­son/ Dorset fam­ily found their for­ever home in Wanaka. “What keeps us here, more than the beauty of the en­vi­ron­ment, is the in­vig­o­rat­ing mix of peo­ple,” says Ben.

LEFT: Ben’s grand­fa­ther came to this area in the 1920s. The first house he built was of larch; 50 years later it was re­placed with this stone house which has since been warmed up with su­perin­su­la­tion in the walls and be­neath the new oak floors. Draughty steel win­dows were re­placed with alu­minium- framed dou­ble glaz­ing. BE­LOW AND OP­PO­SITE: Bess is a sup­port­ive sis­ter to Louis who has Down Syn­drome. She of­ten ends up act­ing in the so­cial sto­ries that Louis loves to make on his iPad.

The tree­house was de­signed and built by Ian Colville who was the boyfriend of one of the fam­ily’s nan­nies. Ben, Bess and Louis pitched in to help us­ing bits of tim­ber gath­ered from around the prop­erty and left over from the ren­o­va­tion.

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