Victoria and Carl Uren with their children Sam, Georgie, Annabel and Tom on their Totara Point property.
Formerly known as Merino Wool for School, True Fleece Merino is the brainchild of farmers Carl and Victoria Uren. The couple originally started the clothing company after finding a gap in the market when trying to source good-quality, affordable and ethical merino for their own children. ‘We started because we didn’t want our kids wearing polar fleece to school,’ Carl says. ‘It was never our intention for the business to become what it has, it’s just sort of evolved.’ The uniqueness of the product, and the focus on function, quality and affordability over fashion, has seen the company grow from strength to strength as demand increases.
Victoria handles much of the day-to-day running of True Fleece Merino, and with four children aged between 11 and five added to the mix, life is busy. The children attend Akaroa School, and after Victoria drops them to the school bus in the morning, she returns home to the office, where she works on answering customer emails, handling accounts, creating social media content, as well as the packaging and processing of online orders. The couple also lease three other blocks scattered across Banks Peninsula with the help of a team of farm managers, in addition to their 900-hectare home farm.
The scale of the farming operation has seen Carl recently hire another staff member, allowing him to step away from the day-to-day running of the farm, something he describes as ‘a big attitude change’ for him, but one that is necessary for the continued growth of both True Fleece and the farming operation itself. The Urens’ farming business model is a diverse one, with a mix of sheep and beef spread across the four properties, as well as dairy grazing. The wool for True Fleece is not grown by the Urens, who stock predominantly crossbred sheep, but sourced from contracted New Zealand merino growers mainly in the South Island through PGG Wrightson, at a fibre diameter of between 17.5-19.5 micron. This finer micron is what makes merino wool in particular such a good choice when it comes to clothing: finer fibres do not have the same ‘itch’ factor associated with crossbred wool, have greater elasticity (allowing for garments to have a better fit), and are odour resistant and quick drying.
The merino business is a family affair: the Uren children often model the school jerseys for the online store, and Victoria’s mother, who made the first original merino jerseys for the Uren children that was to become inspiration for the business, is now involved as part of the sales team looking at continuing to grow their customer base. True Fleece supplies around 50 schools with jerseys, a number that continues to grow mainly organically through word of mouth as parents seek out and demand more natural clothing options for their children.
The addition of adult clothing to the True Fleece product range has seen the company broaden their customer base to include shearing gangs, businesses and sports clubs; and they continue to expand in these areas. Any business, club or institution with a uniform is a potential customer, and the Urens are open to any challenge for custom-designed garments for their clients, allowing the company to be market-driven. ‘True Fleece has got big potential,’ says Carl, ‘we just need to stick at it.’
The growth of the business has been one of trial and error and knowing when and where to expand has been a challenge. Victoria and Carl have also faced hurdles around manufacture and production. While all clothing is cut and sewn in Christchurch from New Zealand-grown merino, the dying and knitting process takes place overseas simply because there is no viable large-scale textile mill operating in New Zealand with the resources to complete such a task. ‘We definitely have had our knock-backs,’ says Victoria, ‘but the Kiwi never-give- up attitude got us there in the end.’
True Fleece Merino’s rebrand and expansion is timely, with wool currently in the spotlight more than ever before as its on-trend properties such as biodegradability and sustainability become more widely recognised and celebrated, as well as its unique fire retardant nature, breathability and moisture-wicking qualities. Its versatility is also being explored beyond the traditional realms of apparel and homewares, leading to the development of surprising products such as the Australian company Firewire’s ‘Woolight’ surfboards, created out of a kind of wool-based fibreglass alternative. Wool is even set to hit outer space, with NASA testing the use of New Zealand wool in its Orion spacecraft emergency air filter system, and wool can be seen on the courts of Wimbledon in Slazenger’s New Zealand wool-blend tennis balls. Projects such as the global Campaign for Wool, and smaller New Zealand-based endeavours such as the educational Wool in Schools programme have had a major influence on consumer awareness of the unique qualities of the fibre.
While there are still those that choose artificial fibres over wool for financial reasons, the media attention surrounding the environmental impact of synthetic microfibres on ocean water quality and marine life is helping to swing wool back into public favour. That current shift in global mindset around natural fibres, coupled with the clever marketing strategies from successful companies like wool footwear brand AllBirds (the fastest growing footwear brand in the world) and long-standing merino clothing companies Icebreaker and Untouched World have blazed the trail for companies like the Urens’. ‘Everyone is becoming more aware of what they are eating, and what they are wearing,’ Victoria says. ‘They want natural. There is an awareness of what’s happening to the environment and the oceans. It’s all happening at the right time for us.’
Wool: The Facts
- Wool is biodegradable.
- Wool is a sustainable, renewable resource.
- Wool is measured by the diameter of its fibre, called a micron.
- Wool is odour resistant, absorbing odour molecules, only releasing these when the fabric is washed.
- Wool is naturally fire resistant, and does not melt, only igniting at 570–600°C, whereas nylon melts at 160–260°C.
- Wool is resistant to mould, bacteria, and dust mites making it a great choice for clothing and home textiles for people
- Wool has a naturally high UV protection.
- Wool is strong: one fibre can be bent around 20,000 times before it breaks.
[ WORDS + IMAGES Claire Inkson ]