In an age when products are constantly being replaced by something better or cheaper it seems astonishing that, 8,000 years since people started farming sheep for wool, we are still using the stuff. The explanation lies in this miraculous material’s many virtues. Wool can be woven or felted to create varied textures; it absorbs moisture, drawing it away from the skin; it is soft, and can be blended with other fibres both natural and synthetic; it dyes easily and keeps you warm. But its uses are not restricted to winter coats and cosy jumpers: a new generation of designers has begun using this age-old material in new ways.
Chris Ofili, a British artist who won the Turner prize in 1998 and is most famous for paintings adorned with elephant dung, has recently turned to tapestry. Made in collaboration with the Dovecot Tapestry Studio and exhibited at the National Gallery in London from April, his hand-woven work draws on the vivid palette, landscape and mythology of Trinidad, where he lives. Jacqueline Fink, an Australian artist, emphasises texture rather than colour. She creates large-scale sculptural installations, throws and wall-hangings using hanks of thick, softly coloured merino wool, often knitted with metre-long needles. Making the most of the material’s bulk, she undermines perceptions of knitting as staid and old-fashioned.
Freyja Sewell weaves together design and sustainability. Using waste felt and recycled fibres, her pieces play on the feeling of comfort and security associated with wool. Her “Hush” lampshade elegantly blankets the bulb and releases a soft, warm glow.
Two new companies have created fabrics that make the most of wool’s practical properties. Allbirds, a firm in San Francisco founded by Tim Brown, a retired footballer, raised $119,196 on Kickstarter to make a range of minimal trainers with a breathable, sweat-wicking and odour-resistant woollen upper. Meanwhile Trew, based in Oregon, has launched a range of sportswear that uses NuYarn, a fibre made by wrapping merino around a nylon core. The result is a material that is stretchier, stronger and more comfortable against the skin. Perfect, in other words, for active pursuits – like herding sheep.