As the desire for sustainable and natural fabrics in apparel continues to grow, some sectors of the industry, such as performance wear and outerwear, have proved tougher to convert to these more natural materials.
But New Zealand company TMC Limited says it has found a way to use natural fibers strong enough to stand up to the rigors of performance wear. The company recently launched its Herculan yarn, made of the wool generally used in carpets. TMC CEO Andy Wynne said it offers an alternative to nylon or other synthetic materials commonly featured in performance apparel.
“You can have merino wool next to the skin, and it’s nice and comfortable and it performs really well,” Wynne said. “But then on the outside, we’ve got to put a nylon or what they call polymark, because the merino wool just doesn’t have the capacity to withstand high levels of abrasion from a backpack.”
Merino is most commonly used in apparel because of its softness and pliability, whereas the wool used in carpets is more coarse and durable. TMC modified its proprietary Nuyarn spinning machines to accommodate the coarser material and create a yarn that feels good enough to wear while offering performance properties.
“In the merino wool space, our average fiber length is about 63 to 67 millimeters, and in the carpet wool space, it’s double,” Wynne said. “So really, the dilemma that industry has had is that when you twist a long fiber, that long fiber can break into two pieces or three. But because we don’t twist and make a rope structure—we draw fibers around a high-performance filament—we didn’t have the same problem.”
Wynne said one of the most effective applications of Herculan is in socks. He said a sock maker came to his company to figure out a way to get more natural materials in socks, which often have toes and heels made of nylon to increase durability. TMC was able to increase the natural fiber content of the socks from around 50 percent to more than 80 percent.
“Now what’s fairly significant is that, the wool has the capacity to absorb 14-16 percent of moisture and the nylon only can absorb maybe 2-4 percent,” he said. “So by increasing the wool content of the sock in those areas, you can absorb a lot more moisture.”
That moisture reduction ups the overall performance of the socks, particularly for wearers like runners. When nylon gets wet, it becomes slippery, causing the foot to slide inside the shoe, but wool doesn’t cause that same slippage.
“Now if you’re an ultra marathon runner, very often, they would be either buying a pair of shoes one size smaller to achieve the lack of movement, or using an arch support, et cetera, in the shoe to stop the foot from moving,” Wynne said. “And it’s that movement in that environment that elevates the risk of blisters.”
The company also has incorporated Herculan in climbing shoes, as well, using the material in the soles to create a better performing product.
“Using Herculan as the sole, as the replacement for a synthetic or a leather, you essentially have the base of the shoe becoming the sock, because climbers don’t want to wear a sock,” Wynne said. “And so, you’ve got an odor-free environment, a slip-free environment, and essentially, a capacity to absorb moisture, whereas the other product simply can’t.”
Wynne said he sees the potential for many applications for Herculan, whether it’s socks, shoes, apparel or accessories. TMC has partnered with several brands that Wynne said he can’t disclose yet, and he sees more opportunity for the material in the future.
“For the first time in our industry, we can increase the wool content of a sock, and we can find a suitable product for the base of a shoe or the sole of a shoe, and we have the capacity to make other products, of shoulder straps or hip belts for backpacks, et cetera,” he said. “And we can make double-sided fabrics like fleece fabrics, where you have merino next to the skin and the Herculan on the outside. This is a really exciting initiative and development for us.”