INNOVATION is the key to maintaining a profile and raising demand for wool in the competitive international textile and fibre market, according to French Wool Association secretary general and French Textile Federation director of economic affairs Hubert du Potet.
Mr du Potet told delegates at this month's World Merino conference in France that wool had survived the test of time because of its unique natural properties and with all these natural qualities, was still a valuable fibre.
"The basic characteristics wool possessed in the Stone Age era are still the fundamental qualities that make wool unique in the 21st century," Mr du Potet said.
"The sheep is man's oldest domestic animal and its wool has been used for clothing for as long as 10,000 years by different tribes and nations around the world.
"It is a hardy, fire repellent fibre with unparalleled qualities.
"It just needs to have a second life and find new niche markets."
There have been three main steps for evolution of world wool market share, according to Mr du Potet.
In 1940 wool represented 134 million kilograms, then rose in 1980 to 1599m kg and in 2008 fell to 1191m kg.
In 2008, wool's market share was 1.6 per cent compared with man-made synthetics at 65.3pc, cotton 32pc, flax 0.9pc and silk 0.2pc.
In 1980 wool's share of the textile market was five per cent.
Mr du Potet said in response to the growing competition from other fibres and targeting high value, quality-driven markets, new wool products had to be developed using innovative technologies.
"How the wool industry innovates, how it uses wool in new ways and anticipates consumer lifestyle trends will dictate the future of the wool industry," Mr du Potet said.
"The promotion of wool products has to be continued on with but it cannot only be for fashion clothes but also needs to be for innovative and technical products, used in other areas."
Mr du Potet said research and innovation also needed to be continued in laboratories to find new and exciting uses for wool and wool products which could be used in new processes and in different directions.
"Other interesting markets can be expected but we can already conclude that wool, with all its natural qualities and properties, is still, versus man-made fibres, a modern fibre.
"It is one of the most adapted fibres to the requirements of the consumer in the clothing, home textiles and technical textiles market," Mr du Potet said.
In the past two decades, the European manufacturing of woollen products has declined dramatically especially due to globalisation and low labour costs.
The textile industry's activities, including the wool industry's, are distributed throughout Europe, but main production areas are concentrated in Italy, Germany, United Kingdom, Spain and France and together these five countries account for 80pc of the EU textile and clothing industry.
Italy is the leading European producer and is well ahead of the other countries.
Mr du Potet said the 1900s saw a decline in demand for wool due to modern trends focusing around synthetics that in many instances were not as hard wearing or insulating as wool.
"In 1966 the industry saw a major decline and the price for wool began to drop year after year and many sheep producers switched to meat production as they could not sell their wool in Europe," Mr du Potet said. "Fortunately modern technologies were applied to wool and it saw something of a slight resurgence in the 70s when the likes of super-wash wool was developed."
Unlike Australia where sheep numbers have declined dramatically during the last five years the sheep numbers in Europe have remained relatively stable.
In 2008 they declined by only 89,024 head in contrast to the world sheep population which fell to 1.008 billion head.
According to Mr du Potet, the major European producer of wool slivers was Germany with 11,000 tonnes followed by Spain with 6000t, while in terms of scoured wool in 2008, the UK was the largest producer with 42,000t.
Like Australia, the major client of European greasy wool is China, followed by Turkey, while Australia is the most important supplier of greasy wool to Europe.
In terms of scoured wool the main buyer in 2009 of European wool was Japan, followed by China and India.