Sarah Shepherd Strong Wool Speaks

  • Tauira / Student
    Sarah Shepherd
  • Kaiako / Lecturers
    Jyoti Kalyanji, Sue Gallagher

The vast majority of New Zealand’s wool is the coarser Strong Wool and, over time, its value and positioning as a fibre have changed. If price were an indication of value, then Strong Wool is currently worthless, selling for less than the cost to shear the sheep. One of the ways that the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) responds to this issue is by advocating for research into consumer-focused innovation with Strong Wool that can be openly shared across the industry. MPI points to a more environmentally and socially sustainable consumer providing new opportunities for this fibre.

With climate change, there is a strong imperative to respond by re-examining our approach to material resources. As designers, we have a huge role to play as the materials and processes we choose directly affect the sustainability of humankind’s production and consumption. A return to traditionally used biological materials would address issues of post-consumer waste. Materials such as Strong Wool, are biodegradable and reduce plastic pollution by offering an alternative to synthetic fibres. Alongside material choice, this research also considers how our design approach can be re-examined in order to accommodate biological materials more effectively.

This project proposes that listening to and responding to the fibre and its materiality allows for new conversations with Strong Wool and subsequently, the stories it can tell. The research utilises a digital knitting practice to explore acoustic textile outcomes.

In collaboration with a commercial partner, a proof-of-concept acoustic panel is developed within a framework that strives for a zero-waste production process and is dimensionally variable, commercially viable, and easy to install. The final presentation of the research consists of a single panel design, presented within a ‘Conversation Circle’ where the viewer more easily experiences the properties and potentials of Strong Wool. The variable lines of the Conversation Circle’s panels are taken from the audio frequency spectrum of a sheep’s bleat.

As a broader outcome, the research examines how nature begins with the material; craft practice also begins with the material but contemporary design favours form. By starting with the material, the project presents a sustainable design approach where we embrace the full breadth of the material. Allowing the material to direct efficient, effective form finding. This is especially important when designing with biomaterials such as Strong Wool which are naturally variable or heterogenous rather than consistent or homogenous.

There is magic to the heterogeneity of natural materials, and as designers, we have so much more to work with when we engage with this uncertainty of difference. By employing a material-based approach, this project highlights the potential of digitally knitted Strong Wool, in an acoustic absorption context, with all its complexities and opportunities.