By Ross McSwain
November 2004 -- An enzyme process, first initiated at the Pennsylvania wool research laboratory of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in September 2001 and funded by the American Wool Council, may offer some excellent opportunities for domestic wool, according to Dr. Parvez Mehta, a wool development consultant for the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI).
Mehta has been working with the process for more than two years, and believes the process can be a huge market potential for the domestic wool industry.
?The process was developed to offer an eco-friendly, versatile option to producing soft, luxurious washable wool products,? Mehta says. Over an 18-month period, a number of industrial trials were carried out to further refine the process. ?Today, we can safely say that we are ready to launch (this process) into the industrial environment with confidence, and this will significantly benefit our domestic wool industry.?
The process is patented by the USDA and is available for licensing to partner domestic mills.
?To date, more than six companies have expressed interest in the process and have signed non-disclosure agreements to do trials using this using process,? Mehta says.
?While we cannot claim inventing the machine-washable wool product concept, we can proudly say that it is 100-percent domestic and circumvents treating wool offshore for machine-washable products,? Mehta adds. Machine washable wool processes have existed for more than 35 years.
According to Mehta, this enzyme process is cheaper than current top treatment options, is more versatile as there are no known minimums to apply the process, is environmentally sound and can be applied to any substrate, such as loose fiber, yarn, fabric or garment.
The enzyme process can be described simply as being a substance applied to wool which nibbles away at the outside of the fiber, attacking the scales on the fiber shaft, thus stopping its felting when washed, explains Dr. Chris Lupton, a natural fiber specialist with the Texas A&M University Research Center in San Angelo, Texas.
Mehta says the process has some negative effects, including causing slight losses in fabric strength, fabric weight and fabric elasticity. However, the softness imparted to wool by the process gives it a luxurious feel when worn against the skin.
As a result of testing the process and it being a domestic product, the U.S. military is developing a number of new product ideas including using the treated wool for making winter undergarments.
In addition to improving the end-product performance of wool, Mehta says, the process also allows for rapid and deep dyeing of the fiber and is ideally suited for not only low-temperature dyeing but also in producing vibrant prints.
?Our work has just begun,? Mehta says. ?We will be further optimizing the process in the coming months to reduce mechanical damage and also work toward exploring new product ideas based on this refined process. This has been one hell of a journey and we are proud to be a part of it.?