Photo credit: Enneke Vaags
If you ask textile designer Sophie Poelman what her superpower is, she’ll tell you: “I think of crazy things!”
It’s that kind of thinking, that risk-taking spirit, and the ability to ask, “why not?” that led her into a textile degree in university when there was only one major job offer in New Zealand for all graduates.
It led her to snowboarding adventures in North America, and then onto designing ski clothing and functional fabrics for outdoor sports.
When she returned to New Zealand in 2014, Sophie worked extensively with merino, and as she did, she began thinking more about wool, specifically strong wool (29+ micron wool and 32+ micron coloured wool).
“Merino is premium, super valued in the industry,” she says. “But I was curious about strong wool – I couldn’t believe it’s not valued more.
I began asking questions, doing more research. The reality is, strong wool is an abundant, undervalued fibre in New Zealand – in fact more than 80% of our wool is strong wool. Yes, it’s great to make insulation and matting, but I think we can do more than that, where we celebrate it, touch it and use it – not hide it behind walls!”
Sophie also dreamed of a better relationship between farmers and designers.
“Right now, strong wool is just shipped, classified, blended, and sold at auction to the highest bidder. There’s no provenance, no traceability, all the unique characteristics of the farm are lost. I believe we can do better.”
There’s also potential on the global scale: The global acoustic insulation market size was valued at USD 14.08 billion in 2021 and is projected to reach USD 17.07 billion by 2026, growing at a CAGR of 3.9% from 2021-2026*. This is due in part to growing concerns of noise pollution and its effect on wellbeing and productivity.
And so, an idea was born: to design an acoustic interior textile product by working directly with a farm partner to source wool, while building a team of experts who help her bring her brand (Lof) – and a scalable business model – to life.
It’s a product that will showcase the durability, strength and beauty of strong wool, and one she hopes will set a precedent for how New Zealand designers and farmers can work together, so farmers earn a premium for their wool.
While she can’t reveal the actual product quite yet, there’s nothing like it in the market.
Today, Sophie is partnered with Palliser Ridge farm for their wool, Woolyarns who are developing coarse wool into yarn, and Industrial Designer Alain Brideson, who brings years of expertise in product design and CAD modelling. (He also happens to be Sophie’s husband, which means lots of creative discussions under one roof!)
And, she has a team of people around her who, she says, help bring her wild ideas to life, but also push back when needed.
While the past the years have been a deep dive into wool for her, experimenting with digital felting, weaving, knitting, dyeing, it’s been the funding from both MPI and AGMARDT that have allowed her to focus on bringing her product to life in the next year.
“It’s so amazing that AGMARDT has supported me because they’ve allowed me to move into that next level of business. Wool is a large-scale operation… I can’t just buy a kilo of wool. I have to buy a 300-kilo bale and get it made into yarn.
The funding is allowing me to focus on the business, to experiment and find new solutions. It’s allowing me to do things properly, to get the IP in place, find the right manufacturers and build the right partnerships.
Without it, I would have to work on such a small-scale level – and it’d take me years and by that time it’d be irrelevant.”
Ultimately, as she develops her acoustic interior product, Sophie wants to be an example of a better way of innovating:
“I’d like to inspire other brands to team up with farms and work with this ethical model, where everything is done as locally as possible, and we really showcase our wool, our people and our unique whenua.”
Her vision is inspiring, and her excitement contagious. We can’t wait to see what she and her partners produce in the coming year.
*According to MarketandMarkets’ “Acoustic Insulation Market Analysis,” updated 31 January 2023