In the early sixties, when The Beatles, mini skirts and psychedelia were all the rage, wool, a staple in everyone’s wardrobe, was being challenged by two new synthetic fibres: polyester and acrylic.
In order to keep wool, with its natural qualities, in the public arena, an idea was formed to create a unique label that would distinguish wool from other fabrics and guarantee its quality and authenticity. In 1963, on behalf of the International Wool Secretariat, a global design competition was initiated to create a graphic logo for a single universal image for wool quality. This was the driving force behind the creation of the Woolmark brand.
It is believed that in 1964 an Italian graphic artist named Francesco Saroglia created a black and white Op Art-like image of five inter-looping lines to form a wool skein. (However, in a tantalisingly mysterious twist, there seems to be no record of a Mr Saroglia. Yet Franco Grignani, a graphic designer in Milan, was renowned for similar Op Art designs in black and white and so some credit him with creating the logo.) This became the Woolmark logo.
Woolmark has become the world's best-known textile fibre brand and, 50 years on, the logo is the number one most recognised logo of all time, according to the April 2011 edition of the UK's Creative Review magazine. It is also a label vintage collectors like me search out in every wool garment we collect. It gives the garment added credibility.
Wool's ability to be draped, tailored, moulded, felted, dyed, embellished and easily blended, among other attributes, ensures each decade's iconic look since the 1960s is immortalised in wool.
Wool's rightful place in the past five decades
Wool, as a fibre, has long been a favourite of designers and from 1964 when the Woolmark brand was launched, couturiers like Andres Courreges in Paris, Mary Quant in London and Geoffrey Beene in America were all devotees. The Mod silhouette created by an A-line shape suited the density of wool. Suits, popularised by Jackie Kennedy, were made in a variety of wools including boucle, knit and tweed, to name a few.
Alongside mini skirts, capes and pant suits, beautiful woven wool plaids from the Scottish Highlands, were made into coats by companies like Pendleton and Aquascutum who championed the ability of wool yarn to be dyed in a rainbow of vibrant and heathery colours.
In Australia, Elena and Santa Spinelli, two sisters who migrated from Italy to South Australia in the 50s, brought with them Italian knitting techniques. They trained their Australian employees invaluable European skills to produce luxury knitwear, under the Spinelli label, in their factory.
The 70s saw fashion move to a Smart Casual look with the shirtdress becoming a fashion staple. Styles swayed from romantic to punk. Long printed dresses made from soft flowing wool jersey were printed with flowers, plaids and ethnic patterns for a folksy feel. Knitted sweaters and coats, with matching scarfs and hats, by Kaffe Fassett in America, Bill Gibb in England and the Missoni sisters in Italy, among others, drew on a rich, many-coloured palette and exciting textures.
The 80s was all about Designer and Power Dressing. Tailoring moved from the traditional confines of menswear into the high fashion category for women's wear. Prominent shoulders and chunky knits with wild colourful patterns defined the decade. Princess Diana was a style icon. She wore wool as chicly as silk including the time she chose a sweater knitted with a koala pattern by Australian designer Jenny Kee to wear to a polo match in England.
Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta and Ralph Lauren championed wool with their classy, seasonal collections and Jean Paul Gaultier used wool to sculpt women's bodies with his dramatically fitted suits.
The 90s saw a variety of fashion looks from Designer to Super Model, from Grunge to Body Con and from Minimal to Conceptual. Giorgio Armani used Merino wool and luxury wool blends that appealed to women who had money, but did not want to look conspicuous. Sonia Rykiel remained the 'Queen of Knits' and produced fashionable suits in interesting colours and weaves. Even Vivienne Westwood returned to her roots and reinterpreted plaids and tweeds from her punk collections.
Since 2000, a new generation of designers has emerged. Inspiration comes from many sources including vintage clothing. Designers have the latest technology at their fingertips. Machinery, especially knitting machines, allows them the opportunity to experiment with complicated weaves and unique shapes. More recently, Christian Wijnants, winner of the 2012/13 International Woolmark Prize, took the concept of exploring the use of one type of yarn in 100 per cent Merino wool and creating a seamless garment, knitted in one piece.
The Woolmark brand will continue to represent 100 per cent pure wool, quality and sustainability for discerning fashion designers and consumers for another fifty years. Imagine how innovative wool garments will be by 2064!
Happy 50th Birthday, Woolmark!