Last update: April 10, 2012 01:46:53 PM E-mail Print


The Future of Wool

L. L. Roux 


PRODUCERS of natural textile fibres, such as wool, cotton, silk, flax, etc., will, in the near future, encounter increased competition from already well-established textile fibres and from newly developed filaments with properties not merely equal to those of the natural fibres, but in some respects superior.

Economists who have made a careful study of the present position of wool, with a view to its likely future role in the textile industry, are convinced that " the only ground on which the wool grower can combat synthetic fibres is that of cost of production ". Those who are concerned with the many aspects of the manufacturing side are advocating a planned policy of production and progress based on new bold lines. They are realizing the need for schemes of trade promotion and for technical progress in all directions on a basis of constant research.



Important Textile Fibres

A brief survey of the relative importance of the main textile fibres will be of interest, as it is considered to be of value in estimating the relationship between the different textile fibres.

Wool is especially suitable for clothing and carpet manufacture, the lower grades being used for the latter. Flax is used for materials, which are subject to repeated washing, while articles of general household use are made of cotton. Real silk, because of its high lustre, fineness, and strength, is used for durable and luxury articles.

Artificial textile fibres, of which rayon is the most popular, are used in the manufacturing of a wide range of fabrics, such as women's dress and suiting materials, men's sports wear, men's summer suitings, blankets, etc. Rayon is extensively used in combination with wool, because of its price, style, and serviceability. Because of its textile qualities it has become wool's chief competitor:

The accompanying table reflects the world's production of cotton, wool, (clean), silk, and rayon (filament and staple fibre) for a period during which important worldwide industrial development took place.

The production figures reveal that a record was established in 1937 when more than twice the tot all production of 1921 was reached. During 1940, the total production was 13 per cent below that of 1937. Rayon was the only fibre to set a production record in 1940 when, for the first time, rayon (filament and staple fibre) exceeded the world production of raw wool (clean basis). In the four fibre groups, rayon and wool represents 13 and 12 per cent respectively of the total world's production. A point of interest in connection with synthetic fibres is the position of the improved rayon staple fibre as opposed to rayon filament. In 1940 the world production of rayon staple fibre surpassed that of rayon filament. The relative importance of the production of the former in various countries is reflected in the following table: -


Production of Rayon Staple Fibre.

(In million lb. during 1940.)




Great Britain




United States of America










Raw wool is produced under a very wide range of conditions - which vary from season .to season and year to year. As it will never be possible to produce a uniform product, wool will always require a great deal of handling and manipulation by skilled workmen and intricate machines throughout the process of manufacture. On the other hand, synthetic fibres are produced in a factory under standard and perfectly controlled conditions.

The special features of wool as a textile fibre depend upon fineness, length, crimp, strength (tensile), extensibility, and elasticity. Wool is the most suitable fibre for use in fabrics as outer or underwear. It has unsurpassed qualities for giving warmth and for the absorption of moisture for wear, and its elasticity gives comfort and ability to recover its shape. Wool has, in fact, the best combination of qualities of all textile fibres.


Synthetic Fibres

The improvement and large-scale production of synthetic fibres has been accelerated during the past decade In America, Germany, Italy, and Japan, where the supply of natural fibres has been inadequate for the demands of the industry. These countries have reduced their importations of textile materials, and during the war period, most manufacturing countries have been endeavouring to establish greater self-sufficiency in their textile industries.

Wood pulp, whose main constituent is cellulose, forms the raw material for viscose rayon, which is the most important synthetic textile material produced. Staple fibre is identical in composition to filament rayon, both being produced by the viscose process, but the former is cut into short lengths, which are used for substituting natural fibres. There are many types of synthetic fibres, which are made by chemical processes from wood pulp; rayon types differ in fineness, lustre, denier (thickness of threads), etc. The most recent remarkably successful addition fu the long list of synthetic fibres is Nylon, which is a coal product, also produced by a chemical process. This process has been developed on a very large scale in the United States of America. It was estimated that the annual production of Nylon would expand to 20 million lb. by the end of 1942.

Apart from its use for the manufacture of pure synthetic fabrics, the improved synthetic textile fibres can be used in blends with any of the above-mentioned natural fibres. Most synthetic fibres are suitable for replacement of cotton, but rayon staple fibre is particularly suitable for blending with various types of wool.

Staple fibre requires no purification before spinning, hence production costs are lower than those of natural fibres and there is less chance of deterioration; also it is uniform in all its properties and length.

The above clearly shows that synthetic fibres play a very important role in the textile industry and that they are destined to play an even greater part if their qualities are satisfactory. Any fibre holding its own on world markets, must comply with textile requirements and its qualities must be equal to or exceed those of other competitive fibres.


Promotion of Wool as a Textile

The present threat to wool is by no means alarming, but it would be foolish to under-estimate the danger of substitution. The need for the promotion of wool has been realised for some years. During the past number of years, especially, new avenues of research have been planned and a great deal of work undertaken to explore every aspect of wool production.

Closely associated with the manufacturing aspect, studies of the physical and chemical properties and the inherent and circumstantial disadvantages of wool are being made. Methods on being studied for the removal of wool's susceptibility to moth attack, its prickiness, shrinkage through laxation and felting. Other researches have been planned to establish a clearer conception of wool quality to study its molecular structure by X-ray, and to ascertain by microscopic examination the effects of the manufacturing processes and chemical treatments on the wool fibre.

The wool producer's contribution to the building up of that section of the textile industry which will demand his product, is important because the welfare of the wool grower will depend entirely upon the amount of wool, that will be required in the pure or mixed form. Programmes of research have been planned to study the problems of the sheep farmer and numerous projects are in progress to study wool growth, and the many factors influencing yield, quality, colour, etc. The greater part of the sheep country of the Union being particularly suitable for the production of fine wool, research work is focussing much attention upon merino sheep. The differences of wool characteristics of different types of merinos (the developed versus the plain) are being studied on a large scale. The adverse effects of mal-nutrition, external parasites and disease are being demonstrated. This work receives liberal financial support from the South African Wool Council, which body, in conjunction with Australia and New Zealand, established the International Wool Secretariat with headquarters in London.

There is no doubt that the market organization is an equally important aspect of the woollen textile industry. However, it is not intended to discuss this matter here, but it is desired to stress the need for a modification of the methods of the past in order to facilitate the sale of wool on established standards, which will ensure a fair reward to the farmer for his contribution in production. No figures of comparative cost of production of -the important textile fibres are, according to the knowledge of the author, available information of this kind would be most interesting and valuable.

Economists and specialists on international industrial development are most active in formulating plans for post-war reconstruction. All industries are involved, and the textile industry will have to receive considerable attention. The general conception of a fair distribution of human needs appears to be uppermost in the minds of those who are planning policies of full employment and social security. An Australian authority has expressed him as follows:

" What we want is not merely better machinery and certainly not more shrewd deals, but some way of bridging the gap between plenty and poverty.”.... "Agriculture should not be called upon to meet the supreme needs of nations during wars and then be allowed to fall into a slump between times." Also ".... there must be a regulation of supply so that a reasonable price level can be maintained…” It is considered that in order to accomplish these ideals, international co-operation is absolutely essential. In an address at the International Labour Conference held in New York, in November 1941, President Roosevelt was reported to have said: "There are so many millions of people in this world that have never been properly fed, clothed; and housed. By undertaking to provide a decent standard of living for these millions, the free peoples of the world can furnish employment for every man and woman who seeks a job." The improvement of the standard of living of the large masses of several immense continents is of paramount importance to the textile industry and especially to the wool industry. The smallest degree, of improvement will immediately result in increased consumption of clothing and other protective materials. These people are likely to require hardwearing and long-lasting materials and no better can be made than from wool.


The following recommendations for the reconstruction of industries and especially agriculture were made by an Australian authority: -

  1. Orderly marketing of all products should be supervised by Control Boards.

  2. Countries should develop their own markets and build up a balanced economy.

  3. Farmers should grow more for their own use. Wherever possible they should undertake diversified farming and select the most suitable combination of farm enterprises for their particular area. However, there are large tracts of country suited for certain types of farming only.


Proposals for the Future

Wool will continue to be the premier agricultural product of the Union of South Africa.

The following brief outline indicates the more important directions in which, it is considered, activity should be directed in order to further research in connection with prodl1ction problems and to ensure that the application of that knowledge to sheep husbandry.

  1. Research should be continued along the lines at present followed in this and other countries.

  2. Surveys throughout all districts, in which sheep are kept under extensive conditions or under diversified farming conditions, would reveal valuable information upon the suitability of types of sheep for different environmental conditions. This applies especially to non-woolled versus woolled sheep, and particularly the Merino, of which certain types will, undoubtedly, be found to be more productive under a certain set of conditions.

  3. Farmers should employ every effort to conserve their veld by guarding against over-grazing and by employing methods which experience has found to be the best for the particular area and type of pasture. These problems are receiving the attention of the Department of Agriculture and Forestry at numerous centres throughout the country.

  4. As the death rate in most districts is remarkably high, the protective and curative measures, advocated by the Department, must be applied in food time. Internal parasites are still the cause of many deaths of sheep and lambs. Reduced wool yields result from sheep, which survive such infestations. The blowfly has become a menace in many parts of the country. Research workers are investigating various aspects of the problem. Breeders are urged to breed a type of sheep (devoid of crutch wrinkles), which is less susceptible to fly strike. Deficiency diseases occur to a marked degree in certain parts of the country where the pasture is poor or where severe winters and prolonged droughts are experienced. It is important to ascertain whether the feeding of supplementary rations (feeds and/or licks) can be practised economically.

  5. As the fertility of sheep is low, this aspect requires the closest attention of all concerned. Merino flock and stud lambing percentages are frequently as low as 40 and 50 per cent. Such low fertility adversely affects annual sheep increases, rate of improvement by selection, and, of course, ultimately, the net income. Most of the causes of infertility have been found not to be due to pathological conditions, but to abnormal and irregular physiological states, many of which can be overcome by methods of management. Extensive experiments have proved the importance of both .the ram and the -ewe in problems of infertility.  More drastic measures should be taken by stud and flock owners to encourage greater reproductive capacity in rams and ewes. The characteristic is inherent and selection can, therefore, be used to establish a high degree of fertility.

  6. Many studs and flocks throughout the country exhibit conformational defects, which at times seriously affect body-form and symmetry. These defects not only weaken merinos as wool-bearing sheep, but also detract considerably from the value of their carcasses. The latter warrants attention because many thousands of merinos find their way to the abattoirs. Narrow chests and drooping rumps are serious defects. Australian evidence indicates. That sheep with better conformation are less susceptible to blowfly strike. Annual sheep classing should eliminate undesirable individuals, due attention being given to sheep which show undesirable wool characteristics, or which are below the average standard of the stud or flock.

  7. Greater attention must be given to proper wool classing as many advantages are derived therefrom. The adoption of definite standards by the British Wool Commission is evidence of the need for standardization. There should be no relaxation of these standards and it may even be possible to devise methods, which would establish the standards used more accurately by a system of sampling and rapid analysis. Farmers are urged to class their wool clips annually according to the standards of the National Wool Growers Association of South Africa. It will be found that wool classing will assist sheep classing to a great extent; sheep with inferior fleeces should be marked and culled.


Future Well Guarded

Wool can no longer rely upon its traditional virtues to maintain its reputation as a textile fibre. Because wool has the best combination of qualities of all textile fibres, its future is well guarded. But it win maintain its position in the textile world only if the full resources of science are employed in its interests.

It is thought that wool's greatest promotion in textile usage is likely to be brought about when the masses of people, who have never been properly clothed, are able to purchase adequate clothing.

It seems unlikely that drastic permanent changes will occur in the near future. In the meantime woolgrowers should endeavour to reduce their cost of production by eliminating unnecessary losses and adopting improved methods.



Farming in South Africa 18