PROSPECTS are good for ongoing and possibly increased wool sales to India, particularly after this year's northern hemisphere winter.
But WA's wool industry requires a marketing push for Indian processors to recognise the quality of its product compared to Eastern States' Australian wools.
Those were the major observations from a 13-day tour of northern India for 20 mostly WA woolgrowers, led by veteran WA wool trader Peter Scanlan and his wife Margaret.
Scanlan Wools has previously hosted three woolgrower tours to China, but this tour, which departed for Mumbai on December 27 and returned on January 8, was their first to India and was probably the first organised tour there for any Australian woolgrowers.
Mr Scanlan has visited India 40 times trading with woollen mills over many years, but has previously resisted requests for a grower tour because of concerns about the ability of the country's tourist infrastructure to handle a trade group travelling to diverse locations.
The group visited a mix of industrial cities and towns as well as tourist destinations like the Taj Mahal, Shree Durgiana Tirath Hindu golden temple and a flag ceremony on the India-Pakistan border which attracts up to 20,000 spectators daily.
It visited a range of woollen mills - including Raymond Ltd in Mumbai, one of the world's largest fabric makers and Oswal Woollen Mills in Ludhiana in Punjab state where the New Zealand Icebreaker brand cardigans and pullovers are produced - as well as shawl and carpet manufacturers.
"We saw everything from the latest machinery -- the Raymond factory is only five or six years old with all new equipment - to traditional small businesses hand-making shawls, bedspreads and carpets and everything in between, including home-made machinery," Mr Scanlan said.
The group also met with Australian Wool Innovation's The Woolmark Company representative in Mumbai and John Southwell, Australian High Commission counsellor to India.
"He (Mr Southwell) was very impressed with what we were doing," Mr Scanlan said.
"The Indians we met were also blown away by the fact that a group of Western Australian woolgrowers had come over to see what happens to their wool," he said.
"One of the mill guys from OCM (Woollen Mills) went around and gave everybody his business card.
"He wants to keep in contact directly with woolgrowers and I think down the track the more interaction they have with our (WA) growers, the more they will want to buy our wool.
"I think it will be a good thing for the woolgrowers to follow up.
"India is a very important customer for us."
Mr Scanlan said a clear take-home message for him from the tour was that Indian fabric makers have to include a percentage of Australian wool in their textile mix to avoid buyer resistance, which was a good signal for the woolgrowers on tour.
"The interesting thing for us was the guide at Oswals was telling us (Australian Merino) wool is pretty expensive for them and 100 per cent pure wool is just too expensive," he said.
"But the guide told us they can't sell synthetic fabrics unless there is a percentage of wool in it.
"Most of the products they've got, like all the polyesters, they have to put somewhere between 10 to 50pc wool with it - they call it poly wool.
"They can't just sell polyester on its own, people won't buy it unless it has a percentage of Australian wool in it and the price people pay depends on how much wool is in it - the more wool the more expensive it is."
The woolgrower tour coincided with an unusually cold northern hemisphere winter which provided more good news.
"I hadn't realised before this that Indian air conditioning only has one cycle, it just blows cold, there's no heating over there," Mr Scanlan said.
"Everybody just wore layers of clothing to keep warm and some of the places we went to were freezing.
"So it's been a pretty good winter for selling wool.
"They (wool processors and apparel manufacturers) told us they had basically sold out all made-up stock and there was no wool tops or yarn left because it was so cold.
"They'll have to buy wool.
"But the problem WA woolgrowers have is they've (Indian processors) all been brainwashed into thinking Eastern States' wools are better.
"They were trying to tell us the best wool came out of Melbourne (selling centre), but WA wools would easily beat most of the wools I saw going through their machines.
"After seeing what they are processing, our WA wools are under-rated, particularly with the drought wools over east."
Mr Scanlan said the best processing equipment in India was on a par with what was used in China, but the scale of operation was much smaller.
"What we get made in China and India is very comparable on quality for price," he said.
However, the wool industry in India was also very different from China, with many small operators still using traditional methods to supply niche markets.
"For example, we visited three types of shawl maker, the first was an old man who hand-made products, the next had home-made machines he'd built himself and then we went to young shawl makers who have imported the latest Italian machines," Mr Scanlan said.
"The young guys intend to double their market, while the hand-made and home-made machine businesses were just hanging on to their markets."
Mr Scanlan said Australian wool was used in shawls and bedspreads, but coarse New Zealand wool - "heavy 36 micron stuff" - was used for carpets.
Carpet manufacture also ranged from highly automated to hand-made.
"One carpet manufacturer invited us in for drinks and we were all standing around with glasses of red wine on this large carpet which he told us later was hand made and worth about $100,000 Australian," Mr Scanlan said.
He said Scanlan Wools had now taken 105 woolgrowers, mostly from WA - a Victorian farmer was the only wool grower on the India tour not from WA - to China and India to visit wool processors.
"I think we've helped open a few eyes," he said.
According to Australian Wool Exchange statistics, India buys 6-7pc of the Australian wool clip each year and is our third biggest wool customer, behind China and Italy.