Once the backbone of our economy, the wool industry is at its knees. Ahead of her show at New Zealand Fashion Week: Kahuria, revered fashion designer Liz Mitchell talks to Dan Ahwa about showcasing a new proposition for wool, starting with design.
Working with New Zealand Wool and reconnecting with
For her show today, Liz is collaborating with celebrated dancer and choreographer Mary Jane O’Reilly (QSM), her creative husband Phillip, and a troupe of dancers “to create a beautiful moment for wool to reconnect with consumers”, bringing a taste of “ballet noir” to the catwalk.
“I worked with Mary Jane 30 years ago as a costume designer, so it’s really lovely to collaborate again,” says Liz.
Model mothers Amanda Bransgrove and Sarah Amos both walked in the first New Zealand Fashion Week in 2001 — which also featured Liz Mitchell’s designs. They have returned with their daughters, Yasmin Singh and Lucia Amos, to carry on this family tradition.
The long-standing Wool NZ ambassador’s show will also include a collection created using materials supplied by Palliser Ridge, a sheep and beef station in South Wairarapa that makes lambswool blankets from sheep grown under the highest ethical and welfare standards.
“It’s so great to collaborate with people who understand and love wool as much as I do. We have so many fantastic farmers who grow amazing, strong wool, and the team at Palliser Ridge works hard to achieve sustainable accreditations that show they care about their animals and the land,” says Liz.
“Our New Zealand farmers grow the most amazing wool, and we need to take advantage of this beautiful textile, and make beautiful items that the world will demand, which will help build the value chain for everyone involved in the production of wool. It’s a sustainable, regenerative resource that can be used everywhere.”
Liz, what makes you so passionate about wool?
Over these past four years, I’ve had time to rethink my purpose. I’ve always worked with wool. But I think over the Covid period, I had time to just be creative with wool fibre as I found ways to work with felting. There’s also just a shift in how I work alongside a community of women that I’ve connected with, along with farmers. There’s something about connecting with a living fibre that just gets into you. I can’t explain it. It’s almost like an addiction. For today, I just feel so excited to be working with New Zealand wool grown on a farm and to showcase the beauty of what you can create with wool on the runway.
When the then Prince Charles came to New Zealand in 2010 I was invited to partake in doing something innovative with wool. But more recently, because of my connections and what I’m doing now, I’ve really taken on more of the role of an ambassador.
So this show really is a new era for Liz Mitchell in a way, starting with showcasing your commitment to that wool journey?
Absolutely. And I think because earlier in the year, I had some garments at ID Fashion, I just realised how much I missed presenting fashion on a runway. Just having the garments seen by a wider audience. The opportunity with New Zealand Fashion Week this year felt like a strong proposition. Being there amongst very creative designers with younger designers and established designers from Kiri Nathan to Campbell Luke and Rory William Docherty — it felt right to be there to showcase lots of amazing creativity.
I feel so excited to be working with New Zealand wool that’s actually grown on a farm, woven in Mount Wellington, then crafted by my atelier to truly highlight our beautiful craftsmanship and tailoring. The wool industry is on its knees and we’ve got this great material, this fibre that is being thrown away. It’s such a sustainable, regenerative material, there’s so much to it that can help make our planet healthier.
What should people be aware of when purchasing wool?
It’s really about educating people about wool and why we should choose wool. New Zealand produces the best wool in the world and we need more. The thing that really frustrates me is so much of the ability to produce wool has been destroyed. We need smaller-scale manufacturing as a way for creatives to get to know fibre, the breed of sheep, and how you can blend wool with things like hemp and harekeke. There are so many innovative things we can do to work with wool sustainably.
So much wool of late has been bastardised. You now have wool mixed up with acrylic, nylon, tinsel, etc, so the quality is inferior. Young designers will think wool is scratchy or horrible to work with, and because of their experience, they only know this much about wool. Yet the wool they are sourcing is produced at volume from factories overseas.
It’s not what I grew up with. Merino produced 10 to 15 years ago was superior to what we have now. You’ll find these proper wool garments at op shops now, so it’s worth sourcing second-hand wool garments and considering how to rework these pieces. We have to redefine wool for now.
What have you noticed internationally with how different markets are approaching their relationship with wool?
Someone like Dutch textile designer Claudy Jongstra is really interesting — she set up a school, where they take care of sheep, and she works closely with students. The Netherlands is the same as New Zealand. They’re burning millions of tonnes of wool. They don’t know what to do with it. So you’ve got the same problems as us, but you have the foresight of someone like Claudy to create something game-changing here. She’s a visionary, and I’m inspired by that. We just need our government to value this too.
We’ve both been involved in discussing ways to better support our polytechs and emerging fashion designers with degrees that reflect these changes in the market. What are you excited about working with wool and the future of fashion designers in New Zealand?
AGMARDT has been funding individuals and businesses to innovate, lead, and exploit opportunities, so New Zealand’s agricultural sectors continue to grow.
I’m excited because I’ve been given a grant through AGMARDT and the government to purchase some felting machinery. It’s sad how much funding for the industry has been cut. Of course, one of the first things to go is textile courses because everyone is going with offshore production. It’s just compounded our opportunities to really be innovative with textiles.
There are lovely things that I’ve encountered with my fine arts degree. Wool is a medium to paint.
What will you do with this grant?
Well, I am setting up an exhibition later in the year at the Corban Arts Estate and I’ll also be developing a space that is going to be a textile hub. It’s a place for both research and creativity, to have workshops and engage people with using wool. This takes place from the end of October through to December.
I hope that I can build on practical awareness. Once people start working with wool, they will understand why it’s amazing.
You’re known for also including furniture textiles into the mix of your designs. Tell us about why you love this.
I’m lucky to work with Interweave and the fabrics that they’re weaving for the interior design market, but I’ve looked at some of those favourites and seen the potential of how to turn them into beautiful, tailored pieces. They’ve got a bit of substance to them so you don’t have to put all the interfacings with these textures — you can do a slightly more unstructured and relaxed tailored garment. This appeals to all genders. I’m quite excited to be showcasing some menswear too, with our wool wraps and coats.