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TAKING MERINO TO THE WORLD: Global retailing in rural New Zealand

By 25 March 2024April 3rd, 2024Feature Article, North&South

TAKING MERINO TO THE WORLD:Global retailing in rural New Zealand

Raised in the wool industry, The Wool Company CEO Margot Riach’s knowledge of each product’s journey from farm to garment helps her and her team deliver products customers can rely on.

By Theo Macdonald

Many people still believe you shouldn’t wash wool garments. Actually, wool likes to be washed as long as it’s done gently, in cold water, by hand. There are many things people don’t know about wool. Luckily, The Wool Company has been helping Kiwis understand wool better for more than 60 years.

Meet Margot Riach, CEO of The Wool Company, a trusted family business that specialises in quality merino and possum-merino garments combining style and functionality. Riach grew up around wool. Her father was a country wool buyer in Taihape and, as a child, Riach spent her summer holidays processing and pressing wool and learning the ins and outs of the family profession.

The Wool Company’s retail business began when Riach’s father was offered an opportunity to buy end- of-line runs from a spinning mill he supplied, and he started selling knitting yarn out of his truck while out picking up wool.

After completing a marketing degree, Riach headed off on her OE, but not before setting up a small shop at the company’s wool-store premises, to sell her father’s now-popular yarn. When Riach returned three years later, she set up The Wool Company’s first mail-order catalogue. Over the next three decades, this catalogue grew from a single foolscap sheet to a 96-page full- colour book that goes out to 30,000 customers, and now includes socks, dresses, jerseys, lingerie and much much more.

Many of The Wool Company’s products use a completely vertical farm-to-garment process. This means buying the wool from the farmers, knitting it, dyeing it, and sewing it to their specifications — a full traceability story.

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The Wool Company prides itself on using only the most exceptional Marlborough merino in its quest for premium quality. Many factors affect a wool’s quality. For example, a dry season can cause brittle wool, because the sheep are stressed. Consequently, The Wool Company exclusively works with suppliers they can rely on to consistently produce high-quality wool. One of the biggest issues with merino is pilling, so any supplier Riach works with is one she’s visited to ensure they prepare the wool properly, taking out all the short fibres and vegetable matter which can cause problems.

Riach’s insider knowledge about the wool industry means she’s personally invested in touting the many benefits of this fantastic textile. For one, wool naturally absorbs and releases moisture. This means woollen socks help alleviate many foot problems by reducing stress and bacterial buildup.

The breathability of wool means it is a natural temperature regulator. If you wear wool on a hot day, it absorbs your perspiration while keeping you cool. Once it gets colder, wool garments retain your heat, keeping you cosy even on winter evenings. Wool is particularly good for babies, who can’t regulate their temperature.

These days, many Kiwis are returning to wool because it is more sustainable than synthetic fibres. You can even compost a wool jersey once it has ended its useful life. Dig it into your garden, and it will provide nutrients to the plants and eventually disappear.

On top of that, wool garments don’t shed microplastics, and because The Wool Company products are all made in New Zealand, the shipping footprint is much lower than for international imports.

Woollen clothing might have been around for thousands of years, but there are still developments year on year that reward The Wool Company’s diligent attention to market trends. It recently developed a summer-weight range of tops manufactured from bamboo and merino that are proving popular.

Riach credits New Zealanders’ commitment to supporting local businesses with allowing The Wool Company to continue delivering great customer service. As well as keeping its lookbook in print, because it knows many customers prefer it that way, The Wool Company also answers all its phone calls in-house. Riach is proud that when a customer calls — “They get to speak to someone who actually knows all about the product and can share their knowledge with the caller.”