Special feature: Wool mats

By: Vivienne Haldane

Using wool shorn from their crossbred flock to make wool exercise mats has added value to a South Island farming business

Kaiora Downs is home to the Schwass family’s flock of Romney sheep

The Schwass family are passionate about wool, but as prices for strong wool continued to dip, so did their spirits. Seeing such a quality product leave the farm for next to nothing was disheartening.

Not to be beaten, they decided to tackle the problem collectively. Inspired by yoga and Pilates-loving family members, the idea for making wool yoga mats was born.

From inspiration to action

With the idea cemented, next came figuring out how to produce them. Although being so familiar with the wool business made that task relatively straightforward.

Jane and Mark Schwass found a wool scourer in Timaru who agreed to do the job for them, even though it was only a small amount to start with.

"He was great. We only had 400 kilos of wool and all credit to him; he took a punt on us," says Jane.

Mark and Jane Schwass with their wool yoga mats

The bundle of scoured wool then sat in the garage, where it stayed for the next 12 months while they searched for someone to carry out the felting process. That was more of a challenge, says Jane.

"Some people were dismissive, and others in the wool world said, ‘no, you need to send it offshore.’ But we wanted to produce a completely New Zealand-made product, so we held out, and eventually found a man in Christchurch to do the felting, which was wonderful."

Based on technology from a past era, the felting machine has thousands of needles that the wool passes through to compress and condense it.

"It took a bit of experimentation to
get the right texture and density for our mats, but in the end, we got the result
we wanted."

The felting machine is just over two metres wide, and the mats get cut into three 670cm widths. The corners are cut to a curve, the back of the mat lacquered and labels added.

The finished product

The resulting mats, made with 32–34-micron fleece, are 12mls thick and cushion the body perfectly. Warm too. Jane says when she gets to her Pilates class and lies on her mat, it’s a delightful experience. She doesn’t want to move, but the felted wool beneath her is supportive when she does.

As well as adding value to their farming business, Jane and Mark have learned a whole new set of skills. They’ve also discovered there’s a lot of work in making and fine-tuning the final product.

Creating a new product from their own wool proved a smart business decision

"We check each mat and remove any vegetable matter, such as tiny twigs. We consulted a carpet layer who advised us on adding a latex backing. One of our biggest concerns was safety; we wanted to make a mat that wouldn’t slip," says Jane.

When choosing the colour for their mats, the whole family voted on what they thought was best.

"Green was the consensus, but the initial colour we trialled was too strong, so we blended it with undyed wool to lighten it. When we saw the finished product, we were delighted."

The next step

The next task was getting the word out about the mats. It’s been mostly an organic process, and Jane realises it will take
time for word to catch on that there is a natural, New Zealand-grown alternative to rubber mats.

To begin with, she introduced them to her local Pilates class, and the reaction was positive.

"People in the class and our instructor were very supportive – they enjoy them, so it’s been a good testing ground."

Jane’s passion for yoga and pilates was behind the new business venture of Kaiora Downs Mats

Jane has also spread the word among friends and family. As well as a couple of media interviews, the couple has also had a website built.

"It takes time to build a new business, but we’re making progress," she says.

Having outgrown their garage, Mark
and Jane have built a shed to house their new business.

"Mark calls it the sweatshop, but it will make life easier as we currently have stuff everywhere. We also have someone to help process our orders once a week."

Keen conservationist

When she’s not working on her woollen mats, Jane continues to enjoy farming.

Kaiora Downs is a 1400-hectare property located in Culverden, North Canterbury. Jane and Mark and their young family moved to the district from Marlborough in 2000. They run 3500 Romney ewes, 1000 hoggets, 250 breeding cows, plus dairy stock.

The sheep are raised and shorn on Kaiora Downs

"There is always something to do around here," she says.

"We’re always checking the ewes, then in a week or two, there’s tailing (docking) to be done."

Jane, a dedicated conservationist, was out planting native trees on their farm the week we spoke.

She says it’s thrilling to see their new venture taking off.

"The world needs to remember how amazing wool is. I put it in our dog kennels and use it as saddle blankets for our horses and in shoes to warm our feet. We cut up wool as insoles in winter for the local rugby team."

When the mats are worn out, they can be added to the compost and will quickly break down.

"Less stuff in the landfill has got to be good. We all want the Government to sort out climate change, but we’re all responsible for making our own contribution, aren’t we?"

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