Market diversification: Are natural wool carpets the next niche?

A new approach to marketing Ulster’s wool could help turn the tables on more than 20 years of designers veering towards harder, man-made materials.

In a bid for consumers to move away from hard interiors, Ulster Wool chairman Ian Buchanan explained that British Wool’s newly named Northern Ireland arm – Ulster Wool – is keen to work with architects and designers to promote natural wool carpets in hotels and casinos.

“We have lost a generation with architects and designers. We have to get back there and now is the best time to do it,” he said.

The UK-wide body British Wool – which Ulster Wool is part of – works to market the wool of around 40,000 producers.

It is also involved in research and development, the training of shearers, the wool selection process, the auction system and laboratory testing.

The not-for-profit organisation collects wool from producers and acts as an agent to sell on to third parties. It holds 18 auctions every year.

‘A change in direction’

“We must continuously improve,” said Buchanan. “You’ll notice that across the water we have done the same. It used to be called the ‘British Wool Marketing Board’ and we have taken the words ‘marketing board’ out of it.

In all the years I’ve known British Wool. I’m convinced we’re doing more marketing now than ever before.

Among the main goals for marketing Ulster Wool is the push for exports; plus, a renewed push for wool to be used as an environmentally sustainable alternative to hard, man-made materials.

Wool furniture?

Research has event been carried out on turning wool into a replacement for plastic.

The English company, Solidwool, has developed a fiberglass-style product with wool acting as the reinforcement agent instead of glass.

Already they have been able to make chairs, tables, coasters and place-mats with intricate marble patterns created by the strands of wool.

Using British and Ulster Wool

“We take care to make sure all the water used to scour the wool is treated and reused,” Buchanan said. “We have also carried out life-cycle analysis against plastics and synthetic materials – everything is going for us at the moment, we have a natural product to sell.

“The wool closest to ours is New Zealand wool; but, ours has better bulk value which means that when you press it down it springs back up again better. Without a doubt our wool is fantastic for making carpets.”

The statement seems to be backed up by market demand.

According to Buchanan, the contract for carpets made using British Wool increased by 50% last year. Currently, around 55% of British Wool is used for carpet-making.

Closer to home, Ulster Carpets is said to use around 60t of wool a week.

“It’s early days with a new approach to marketing as we are marketing British Wool fibres specifically for the first time. It used to be a very generic product,” Buchanan added.

“We are spending the same amount of money on marketing; but I think we are spending it smarter.”

The new approach will include selling Ulster Wool as a product directly to consumers through attending interior design exhibitions, and also through partnering with retailers and manufacturers.