AUSTRALIAN woolgrowers were treated to a special look inside two of arguably the best fibre processing plants in China.
The visits to Zhejiang Zhong Xin Woollen Textile Co and the adjoining Zhenbei Cashmere were part of the Elders 2012 Grower Tour which gave growers a a first hand understanding at all aspects of the wool industry in China from greasy wool processing to the high end fashion industry.
Elders national wool manager Andrew Dennis said the Zhejiang Zhong Xin woollen mill had long been recogised as producing arguably the best wool top in China.
Top is the loose ropey-like stage in wool processing immediately before the fibre is dyed and spun into a yarn.
Zhenbei Cashmere is one of the best recognised brands in China, marketed through its dozens of retail outlets in major cities. The bulk of the high-end cashmere garments for both women and men are sold domestically through its Zhenbei retail outlets through out China.
The mills are located on the shores of Tai Lake in Huzhou City, Zhejiang Province about 150km west of Shanghai. Both mills are owned by the Qiu Family.
Zhejiang Zhong Xin Woollen Textile Co processes about 5000 tonnes of fine Australian Merino wools into wooltop and yarn for both knitwear and worsted garments for the apparel trade.
"These mills really are recognised as producing some of the best wool and cashmere products in the world," Mr Dennis said.
"A large part of the reputation is because they are buying such high quality raw material and then processing the fibre with the aim of producing the best product that is possible.
"By controlling the quality of the process from start to finish the mills are able to produce wool and cashmere in forms that performs exactly how it is designed to be processed."
At Zhejiang Zhong Xin about 70 percent of the wool throughput is sold in a wool top form, either to other Chinese processors or to overseas mills particularly in Western Europe.
The quality control at the wool mill was obvious from the moment the Australian growers entered the mill. Workers were literally opening each bale to inspect the sort through fleece wools and to further blend the wool prior to scouring.
After travelling through the efficient scour lines the wool emerged slightly damp and bright white in colour but still carrying vegetable matter.
The wool is further blended when it is blown from the scour holding bins through to the carding section.
Here the millions of dollars of investment becomes apparent.
State-of-the-art European machinery with precisely aligned wire teeth on some 12 rotating drums spin at a relatively low speed to remove the vegetable matter and begin to align the fibres for the combing process.
"The quality of the card has a every big impact on the quality of the finished product," Mr Dennis said.
"It is here that VM is started to be removed but also importantly it is where lubrication is added, the moisture content is adjusted and the all important fibre weight per metre is determined.
"Having the fibre weight correct and consistent will determine how the wool fibre will process through to wooltop."
The semi-processed wool emerges as what is known as a sliver, a loose web of fibres which still can contain some small amounts of VM including grass seed which have become aligned with the wool fibres and 'neps' (small pills of tightly bound wool).
From there the wool slivers are sent through three stages of preparation aiming for 20g a metre sliver, and at a defined moisture content.
Some 20 slivers are fed into the combing machine which operates at high speed with a cylindrical combing action to remove VM, nep and any other impurities.
The slivers are then run through another two finishing machines to make final adjusts to moisture and per metre weight of the finished wooltop sliver.
"For this process we're looking at about 12 hours for the mill to take greasy wool through a saleable and internationally traded product," Mr Dennis said.
"The actual production time is probable a little over three hours. But wool as a natural fibre needs to rest between the various stages of production."
Mr Dennis said the top which was sold by Zhejiang Zhong Xin would usually end up in knitwear, particularly high-end Italian knitwear brands.
Of particularly interest during the tour by the Australian growers was the superwash process which allows knitted woollen garments to be machine washable.
After touring the wool plant the growers saw cashmere being spun, knitted and later showcased in the adjoining retail outlet.
* Planning is now underway for the 2013 Elders wool tour which will leave on March 2. Contact Elders northern wool manager Bruce McLeish 0429 909 990.
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