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Published: 29 July 2022

By Andy Ross

The Drama of Wool

Continuing the story of New Zealand's fashion industry since 1940, wool enters the picture. 

In 1960 the New Zealand Wool Board estabished the Wool Board Awards to 'encourage the highest standard of fashion and craftsmanship in pure wool outerwear." It was not a huge success at the start with "lots of improvement for New Zealand" being the comment of judge Caroline Cole from Jacques Fath and House of Worth in Paris. One garment however was worthy of the supreme award - a two-piece ensemble by designer Gus Fisher after he had visited the French capital. 

With more than fifty million sheep and 44 countries importing New Zealand wool, the industry brought in £138 million annually, and from 1960 until 1965 the Wool Board was the most prestigious fashion competition. There were two supreme awards - fashion and textiles - and, although the garments had to be NZ-made, they did not need to use New Zealand wool or to be designed locally. It is a reflection of today's circumstances that fine wool made locally was not available and this pitted small-scale designers against international companies who manufactured in the country for the awards. The winners of the awards and medals - 500 in 1963 - were promoted in NZ Wolen's Weekly, Weekly News, Stitch, Playdate and Vogue New Zealand, in multi-page spreads. One company dedicated a whole division to perfecting the entries for the competition and regularly won the prestigious gold medals. 

Not only raw product, wool, was being sold overseas. Fashion started to become big business in 1962 when 100 woollen garments were flown to Sydney and then on to Washington DC to be shown at the Commonwealth Costume Cavalcade. The Gown that Jackie Liked, a rose-patterned woollen evening gown, was the gold-medal-winning work of Auckland designer, Lea Draysey, who believed that wool was as glamorous any lighter fabric for evening wear. 

Storm clouds though were gathering. The man-made fibre revolution was on its way. To fight back, the Wool Board took to making use of celebrity, a growing trend. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa wore a white wool chiffon gown with coral beading at promotional performances in Honolulu, Los Angeles and London, commissioned by the Wool Board from Tarantella's Joan Talbot while Miss World, Ann Sidney from Britain, modelled wool from both NZ and the UK in her role as Ambassadress of Wool.

In 1969 UEB Textiles introduced Dylon XB shrink-resistant process to their production, increasing colour-fastness and depth to woollen fabrics. They created a woollen red carpet for Penny Plummer from Australia as part of their Key to Living Colour campaign during which the company flew 20 garments from 12 manufacturers to London to be modelled by this newly crowned Miss World, and a month later Penny arrived in New Zealand to attend promotional parades in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. The fight to attract a younger demographic to the wonders of wool was definitely on!