Allbirds has many achievements under its belt, but chief among them is reviving industry interest in making shoes with wool.
Though using wool in footwear is not a new concept, Allbirds encouraged shoe makers to innovate with the eco-friendly natural fiber.
“Wool used to be reserved for slippers before Allbirds brought it to the forefront as a functional and environmentally friendly option for everyday footwear,” NPD Group’s executive director and industry analyst for accessories and footwear Beth Goldstein told Sourcing Journal. “I think the newfound appreciation for wool presents many brands with the opportunity to work it into their lines across a number of styles.”
Performance is one of the many reasons why footwear makers choose wool, a material consumers might more closely associate with warmth and insulation.
In contrast to synthetics, wool, and specifically merino wool, is capable of absorbing large amounts of moisture vapor naturally, according to the Woolmark Company. It also has built-in odor-reducing properties, containing offending molecules until the next wash.
With the invention of three-dimensional knitting technology, the company said, manufacturers are now able to craft uppers and soles with increased elasticity, breathability and durability in concert with melting yarn, elastane yarn and filament-wrapped wool yarns.
Brands that focus on performance took this new development and ran with it. Vivobarefoot, a performance footwear brand known for minimalist running shoes, recently partnered with Woolmark to create a line of Primus running shoes made with knit wool and adapted to an urban lifestyle.
“Acting as a natural thermal regulator, we combined our Woolmark-certified wool fibers with Tencel, a cellulose fiber derived from wood, so you can tread lightly on the planet,” Vivobarefoot said in an email. “Our removable bio-based Bloom EVA insole provides year-round comfort with total barefoot movement and sensory feedback.”
Beyond incorporating wool into existing silhouettes, footwear makers are increasingly making the material their sole focus,and marketing their products’ sustainability accordingly.
Soon after Allbirds arrived on the scene with its popular wool runners, budding Swiss wool slipper brand Baabuk launched two new categories, sneakers and boots, in a Kickstarter campaign.
“Wool is naturally antibacterial, temperature regulating, water repellant, and has a laundry list of other desirable features,” Baabuk digital marketing manager Alex Miller told Sourcing Journal. “So it’s the perfect material to craft footwear designed for walking in the city, working in the office or flying around the world.”
Baabuk was responding to consumer demand for multi-use styles, silhouettes suited for both work and weekend. The Sky Wooler has been a hit among young professionals for its modern styling and adaptable properties, Miller said.
Sustainability and ethical production are also priorities for Baabuk and many other footwear brands offering wool options, despite some controversy regarding the treatment of the sheep that bear the natural fiber. Baabuk claims it learned to walk that tightrope early on.
“Wool can be an eco-friendly and ethical material, but it can also be harmful to the animals and the planet when improperly processed,” Miller said. “We hope to see the ethical usage of wool continue to grow throughout industries, and many consumers are hoping to see this as well.”
Baabuk said it sources wool close to where it manufactures footwear. For sneakers produced in Portugal, it sources wool from the Serra de Estrela National Park.
Sheep have been native to the region since the Middle Ages, and Baabuk said it moved into the region to revive its wool-producing culture and employ local artisans with knowledge of how best to work merino wool fabric, which is locally known through the region as burel.
“Consumers are increasingly seeking sustainable products,” Miller said. “Wool products, when properly sourced, meet this demand. And when done correctly, shearing sheep for their wool is beneficial to the animal, providing relief rather than harm.”
There is also a product design incentive inherent in creating wool footwear, something that has drawn increased interest from Camtrade product development manager Vanessa Bolieiro.
The company’s newly launched brand Enjoiya quickly released a mixed-material boot called the “Rebelle” that featured a cuffable wool sweater collar with an accent zipper for a “fashion-rustic style” that would set it apart from similar products.
According to Bolieiro, working with wool presented new possibilities for a number of design elements, thanks to the material’s unique texture and color enhancement.
“The most fun element of wool is coloring it. For example, our Fall 20 collections feature an abundance of plum, loden, navy and cognac, among neutral offerings,” Bolieiro told Sourcing Journal. “Additionally, mixing materials can drastically change the ‘vibe’ and intrigue of a boot or shoe, simply by adding multi-color, multi-tonal wool collars, sweater collars, or lining design.
“Wool is a wonderful resource for bringing fashion and function to life,” she added.