Reworking wool as the most modern of materials
Emily Brooks meets the designers transforming the most traditional of materials into a cuttingedge, technical product
Wool is the safe choice when it comes to interiors. Natural, strong, warm and breathable, it’s hard to fault on the performance front and it brings a touch of luxury to a room at relatively little cost.
But it needn’t be safe when it comes to the design itself. Wool can be as cutting-edge and contemporary as it is traditional. Scratchy tweed and tartan blankets are a world away from the graphic modern fabrics created by young designers. Wool is increasingly the focus of new product development and technical advances.
Rug designer and maker Esti Barnes recently unveiled one such breakthrough in the Chelsea showroom of her brand Topfloor. CanCan is a pure white rug that uses a new product developed by Wools of New Zealand. Called Glacial, the wool is as white as it gets without resorting to fibre-damaging bleaching (the process is a secret, but it happens at the scouring stage, when the wool is washed to remove dirt and extract lanolin).
Barnes is known for her sculptural rugs and CanCan is no exception: taking its inspiration from a wedding gown, it spreads out in undulating ruffles around its perimeter. It is quite other-worldly. Such three-dimensionality would not be possible using another material, says Barnes. She is a huge fan of wool for its hard-wearing properties and its lustre, which is much more subtle than silk (currently the more fashionable material for rugs).
“Wool is forever; everything else is a trend,” she says. Blindingly white rugs are not for every home, but Barnes says that when Glacial is dyed, the colours come up truer, too; she’s developed a companion rug, FanFan, in darkest black, to illustrate the point.
The Campaign for Wool launches its annual Wool Week today, and the message this year is to promote wool as a material for the modern world. From its use as a performance fabric in clothing for extreme conditions to its ability in bedding to help us sleep better, wool’s uses are nothing if not diverse. Taking over a large space on London’s Baker Street until October 15, a show called Wool Fusion will highlight these practical uses, but there is plenty to delight the eye as well. “There are so many wonderful products being made with wool,” says Arabella McNie, the curator of Wool Fusion. “Top of my recent finds are rugs by Adam Blencowe and Marine Duroselle, where the pattern is produced by needles punching wool on to a flatweave plain rug; the finished texture is quite unique. I am also a big fan of the work of Jule Waibel, whose steam-pleated felt designs are beautifully sculptural.”
Bridgette Kelly, interior textiles director at the Campaign for Wool, says that wool appeals to our desire for authentic materials with a story to tell. “Every year, the interest in provenance and sustainability grows stronger, and the industry is responding,” she says. She points to Brockway Carpets’ rarebreed sheep range and Yorkshirebased spinner Laxtons, which developed Sheepsoft, a fully British yarn for knitting made from finer crossbred wools for a softer touch.
Small, independent textile designers are also exploring wool’s possibilities, with less fashionable techniques such as needlepoint seeing a return. Some products are small-scale and handmade, such as Christabel Balfour’s woven rugs and tapestries, made on her handloom in south-east London; others make a virtue of their Britishness, such as Anna-Lisa Smith’s cushions and rugs, designed and made in Yorkshire.
“It is wonderful to see young designers looking at classic weaves such as the Welsh doublecloth designs and reimagining them in very contemporary colours,” says McNie. Jenny Wingfield is one example: her company, Flock, has just launched its first wool range, a doublecloth with a bold graphic pattern called Blocks. It’s woven by Scotland’s Bute Fabrics using wool from the backs of Yorkshire sheep; Wingfield is proud of the “British-made” stamp, but more importantly, its quality.
“Wool is such a nice material to work with,” Wingfield says. “It’s strong, it dyes really well, it can be warming but also cooling. I’m really pleased with this cloth – the weaving has retained all the detail of the sharp, angular pattern, and the beautiful texture adds another dimension.”
And it’s not just for bringing a deeper, more luxurious look to a room. “Wool is definitely a material that you could use in a richer interior, but it can also be really light and fresh and, therefore, really modern, which is what we’ve tried to do with it,” Wingfield adds. “I really hope we can keep working with wool, because it is amazing.”
Scratchy tweed and tartan blankets are a world away from these fabrics
GAME OF CONES Jule Waibel’s Unfolded Cones seat; Multiblock cushion and throw in mustard yellow from Bronte by Moon; Shadow cushion from Melanie Porter