Q&A: Wool champion Polly McGuckin on sustainability, the future of wool and the woolly wallpaper of her childhood

This Christchurch entrepreneur hopes the country will fall back in love with woolly wonders.

When Polly McGuckin was a child, she distinctly recalls the woollen wallpaper adorning her parents house. As the owner of Exquisite Wool Blankets, Polly continues to surround herself with her favourite fibre. Wool is on her bed, her chairs — even her soap is surrounded by wool felt. The reason is simple, says Polly. “It is biodegradable, highly durable, antibacterial and flame resistant. It really is a miracle fibre.”

In this interview with thisnzlife.co.nz, Polly explains how she first fell in love with wool and why she is a proud champion of the New Zealand wool industry.

How did your family originally get involved in the wool industry in New Zealand?

Exquisite Wool Blankets owner Polly McGuckin.

PH: My father started off as a wool buyer in his 20s and when we were children he travelled throughout New Zealand to wool sales. He would also travel overseas to visit clients and mills that supported the New Zealand wool industry. In 1988 my parents started Yaldhurst Wools, a private wool buying and exporting business. My father, in his 80s now, is still actively involved in the business as it is both his passion and hobby. My love of wool came from my parent’s passion for it. My husband Ross McGuckin is the general manager of Yaldhurst Wools and plays a huge part in Exquisite Wool Blankets, so it is very much a family business.

What inspired you to launch your business?

The inspiration behind Exquisite Wool Blankets came from my passion for wool. Growing up surrounded by sheep on my parent’s property and having a family in the wool trade meant I was surrounded by wool. While on the big OE I visited the English mill that my father sold wool to and saw the beautiful woollen products they made. It made me want to offer these incredible woollen products to New Zealand. I saw a gap in the market for quality woollen, full-size bedding blankets and so I started selling them in New Zealand. Since the start I have expanded the range and now work with other mills too.

Tell us about your company.

Exquisite Wool Blankets sells many different woollen products now. Beautiful throws, full-size bedding blankets, Harris Tweed cloth and accessories, woollen caskets and ash urns and I now have the exclusivity on the gorgeous range of Brora knitwear.

We can work with retailers/designers on their special designs to create a product with a real point of difference. We recently started working with Nadia Lim milling the wool from her farm into a very beautiful bedding blanket in central Otago colours. It has been great to have her support and love for wool.

Why is wool a sustainable fibre?

How many fibres can regrow? Wool is the most sustainable fibre to use for clothing. It is biodegradable, highly durable, antibacterial, and flame-resistant. It really is a miracle fibre.

Wool is a fibre that has been used for thousands of years. In recent years, worldwide demand has declined as synthetic fibres have been introduced into the textile industry. Why should New Zealanders think of wool as a modern — perhaps even high-tech — material?

If wool had been “discovered” today it would be thought of as a miracle fibre. Over time its positive, sustainable qualities have been forgotten. In my opinion, the introduction of manmade fibres are negatively impacting our planet. I urge people to look at the label before buying clothing and furnishings and consider whether the fibre is biodegradable or sustainable. Natural fibres, such as wool, are the best option.

As a champion for New Zealand wool, we can only imagine all the ways you use wool in your own life. Tell us about your favourite way you use wool.

I am surrounded by wool in my everyday living. I have woollen fabric on my chairs, woollen curtains, woollen carpet, woollen throws and my bed hasn’t a duvet, just woollen blankets. My soap even is surrounded by wool felt! Growing up we even had wool wallpaper. That wool paper is still in perfect condition at my parents’ house.

As someone who has been in the industry for many years, what’s your favourite memory involving wool? Perhaps when you were a child?

Shearing time always brings back fond memories. The smell of the shed, the buzz, great morning teas! I’ll never forget my homespun wool jersey that always kept me warm.

What is the biggest challenge facing the wool industry today?

The wool industry is competing with manmade fibres that are obtained by the chemical processing of petrochemicals. Why would you want to wear products made in this way? Fast fashion is causing huge problems for our waterways and the environment as a whole.

We need to start thinking about slow fashion and educating all generations. Once we all look at the effects of synthetic fibres, we will realise how incredible wool is. Microplastics are popping up everywhere, not just in waterways but the food we eat.

Your company, Exquisite Wool Blankets, makes biodegradable woollen caskets as well as other cosy products. What’s the deal with woollen caskets?

The Natural Legacy woollen caskets and ash urns bring comfort to families at such a difficult time. When my uncle had a woollen casket at his funeral, it drew people to touch the casket. Wool is so tactile. There are three fleeces of New Zealand wool in each casket. They come in wool white and grey and have a lovely name plate that is embroidered with the person’s name. We have ash urns as well that are beautiful. They are available on request through all funeral homes.

While wool can be used to make a wide range of products, from wallets to soft furnishings, the classic woollen blanket has stood the test of time. Why do you think woollen blankets are so iconic in New Zealand?

They are iconic as we have grown up with them. There weren’t all these fleece fabrics around when we were young. It was the wool blanket that everyone had on the bed and they were made by the local mill that have unfortunately shut down now. The warmth and comfort a wool blanket provides is amazing. Wrap a sick child in wool and watch the comfort it brings.

Any favourite customer reactions to your products?

Exquisite Wool Blankets being put to good use for the NZ Flying Doctor Service. Photo: Supplied. 

Some people are addicted to our throw and blanket range and keep wanting more. I love the positive feedback from families whose loved ones have been buried in a woollen casket. The comfort they give people at such a difficult time is lovely to hear.

What business lessons did you learn from your parents?

My parents taught me that there will always be many ups and downs, as we are seeing now in the wool industry. We just have to ride the wave, be prepared to take a few risks. My parents worked so hard and often all seven days of the week. I guess that work ethic has rubbed off on me.

Where does the wool for Exquisite Wool Blankets come from?

Yaldhurst Wool sends wool to England that is sourced from farms throughout the South Island. These UK mills have been huge supporters of the New Zealand wool industry for more than 100 years. Without these overseas mills we wouldn’t have a market for our wool. We really need a global demand for wool if our industry is to survive.

How do you think your life has been informed by your work in one of the oldest industries in New Zealand?

When you love wool and see the benefits of using wool you want others to know about it. Education is key to spreading the word. I grew up hearing how great wool was, but others haven’t, so we need to get the word out. The more people using wool in all sorts of different ways, the better it will be for our precious environment.

What motivates you to continue to serve as a champion for the wool industry?

I’m continuously motivated by the incredible properties of wool and how it can help solve many environmental problems. I want to continue to support the New Zealand wool industry and the farmers who work so hard to grow this beautiful natural fibre.

Learn more at Exquisite Wool Blankets

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