Over a cup of tea on a camping trip, two school friends Ben Wilson & Amanda Dorset began mapping out the foundations of a movement they would end up calling their ‘quiet sheepskin revolution.’
The intention was simple, to bring nature inside the home and to present sheepskins to market in a new way - as both luxurious and functional, an essential to be lived on every day.
Redefining the shared spaces we live in, Wilson & Dorset take pleasure in rewriting a post-synthetics industry by sharing the wonders of wool as a fibre.
We spoke to Amanda and Ben about their woolly revolution, and the benefits of this versatile, one-of-a-kind material.
Wilson & Dorset began in 2010, what inspired its creation?
Ben: One of my earliest memories is playing on the bespoke sheepskin carpet (my) dad designed for the living room in the farmhouse where I grew up. This might be where my connection with the form and functionality of wool fibre began! While I was marketing traditional sheepskin products to Asia, I saw scope for new thinking about wool. Rather than processing and changing the natural characteristics of the fibre until their look and feel borders on synthetic, I wanted to create products that celebrated the unique forms and features of sheepskin. That’s where Amanda’s knowledge and similar mindset came in. She was working with Icebreaker as the New Zealand merino story was gaining traction, led by founder Jeremy Moon. Knowing the power of storytelling and simple but good design, Amanda shared the vision of re-imagining sheepskin.
Amanda: I’ll never forget when I was living in the UK, I had ventured home to NZ for the Christmas break. I was passionate about taking a bit of New Zealand home to my London apartment but I couldn't find a sheepskin rug I liked. Much of the sheepskin was over-processed so it looked synthetic and worse - there were synthetic rugs trying to mimic wool fibre. I left empty handed and actually really depressed! The thought stayed with me - something isn't right when you can't buy a beautiful sheepskin product in New Zealand.
A few years later I returned to NZ, was working for Icebreaker and hooked up with Ben. Actually on our first date (Andiamo’s restaurant Auckland 2005!) , he pulled out a 40 page document with some initial ideas and designs around a cool sheepskin brand, and the rest is history! We were both passionate about wool and New Zealand’s natural environment. We wanted to bring natural fibres into our home, to reflect our lifestyle and connection with place.
So the W&D brand evolved out of our combined experience in the wool industry, living at Lake Wānaka, and traveling overseas. When the brand began, a lot of interior design products were made from terrible synthetic fibres and consumers only reference for sheepskin was the tacky tourist store. We desperately wanted to elevate sheepskin beyond the tacky tourist store and position it as a beautiful natural and aspirational product for your home.
We couldn’t find any New Zealand sheepskin products that suited our design aesthetic, so we set about creating products we loved and used in our everyday life. We then discovered that these products changed the way we interacted in our home. For instance, as a result of kicking back and spending more time on our shaggy floor rug, we interacted more deeply with our family and friends. We wanted to share these ideas of relaxed and connected living by offering people a little bit of the Wānaka lifestyle to take home with them.
What makes wool a hero fibre?
Ben: New Zealand wool is renowned for its purity, quality, strength and lustre. Living a more natural life with wool is a good decision. While the structure of wool fibre delivers exceptional functional and technical performance, you can also be confident you are making the right choice for the delicate ecosystem of our planet. Wool is biodegradable, so at the end of its life, wool can be returned to the soil and will degrade in a few months, releasing nutrients back into the ecosystem.
Amanda: And steering clear of landfills! Wool is better for the earth, and your home on so many levels. It insulates because of the crimp in the fibre, so that air is trapped between the fibres, enabling wool to provide warmth in winter and coolness in summer. Wool absorbs water vapour, decreasing humidity, condensation and mould growth. It is less flammable than synthetics and does not melt making it a safer option for your family home. Small pores in wool fibre can absorb pollutants from the air, creating a healthier indoor environment. Due to the porosity of wool, sound waves penetrate the wool fibres and dissipate, so our wool rugs reduce noise in and between rooms. And wool is easy care! The protective coating on the wool fibres make wool products resistant to staining and so simple to clean. I know I am sounding like a wool zealot now…sorry, it’s so hard not to!
Tell us about your commitment to sustainability, how are your sheepskins sourced?
Amanda: We are 100% committed to sustainability. Wilson & Dorset sheepskins are sourced from New Zealand. These sheepskins are the bi-product of pastoral farming, where sheep are raised primarily for meat. By utilising the sheepskin, we are making full use of this resource. In November 2014, World Animal Protection released its Animal Protection Index, which ranks 50 countries across the world on their animal welfare standards. This placed New Zealand in first place alongside the United Kingdom, Austria and Switzerland. New Zealand’s high ranking can be attributed to: the benign natural environment for pastoral farming in New Zealand; comprehensive regulations regarding animal welfare; government enforcement of those regulations; the need to demonstrate to international consumers that New Zealand meat is ethically sourced; and an active animal rights sector.
Ben: New Zealand is one of the kindest environments for sheep to live in, with everything they need to grow and be healthy. Here we have a pristine climate, clean water, fresh air, grass, and growers who look after their animals and land with the utmost care. Unlike other parts of the world, sheep in New Zealand are grass-fed. The cool to warm climate allows the animals to live outside in their natural rural environment, year round. Sheep are pastorally farmed, without the need for factory farming methods. Happier sheep produce better wool, and that makes New Zealand wool the best quality and most sustainable in the world.
Amanda: Excitingly, we are proud to announce our sustainability-focussed partnership with our new best friends Wise Wool. The Hansens are based on the East Coast of New Zealand near Gisbourne. They are 5th generation farmers and making it their mission to rejuvenate New Zealand's wool industry. They're engineering wool into ‘wool buds’ that can be used as an ingredient or filler in furniture pieces amongst other things. It’s such a buzz to hang out with these wool fiends – we are dreaming up some pretty exciting product ideas but first we are ditching our current recycled plastic fill and replacing it with wool bud in our cushions, Stone Sets and Shaggy Bean Bags. Unbelievably the whole interior “fill” market is a lazy, stodgy sector with no natural alternative fill options. The sector has been crying out for someone like Wise Wool to come on board. So now we have the absolute pleasure of creating exquisite products made from wool and now filled with wool! It feels so good to say that! Follow us on our socials to watch this ‘fully woolly’ co-lab unfold.
What are some of your favourite ways to incorporate Wilson & Dorset skins in your home?
Amanda: OK, so I’m going to answer this in complete honestly. We have sheepskin pretty much everywhere in our home. We have it in our living room on our couches, armchairs, on some of our dining chairs. Having sheepskin on our leather couch is amazing year round. In winter, leather can be really cold so one of our sheepskin throws works really well. In summer when you are hot and sticky – sheepskin is perfect to keep you cool and stop you sticking to the couch!
One of my favourite spots is the designer floor rug in our bedroom beside our bed so it’s the first thing my toes touch every morning. Bliss. We have an outdoor ‘happy hour’ circle of Ico Traders wire chairs which we throw a sheepskin over for sunset drinks. Our barbeque area comes to life on pizza nights when we snuggle up in sheepskin and toast marshmallows with family and friends after a lovely shared meal. It’s so handy to have a stash of sheepskin rugs to pass around to our guests when offering that nightcap!
Wool has been utilised by human-kind since the beginning. What role do you feel wool plays today in modern living?
Amanda: Connectedness through the medium of nature is at the core of Wilson & Dorset’s philosophy. In today’s society, there are people living all around the world who are quite disconnected from nature. They are living in central city apartments and we’re exceptionally lucky we are sitting here in Dublin Bay overlooking Lake Wānaka and the mountains. We wanted to introduce something to those apartments, to modern living, that is truly from nature, which you can touch, to reconnect with the feeling and textures of nature. We like the ‘biophilia’ theory of American biologist Edward O. Wilson, who believes humans seek to be connected to nature.
When you go for our walk along the beach or in the forest or are lounging on sheepskin, your body feels good. It’s quite a primal thing. Synthetic based fibres do not feel the same. Our product range includes floor rugs, cushions and ottomans and beanbags, that encourage ‘lounging’ – transforming formal spaces into places of supreme connection and enjoyment. We spend so much time at our computers; we are locked into this sitting position at desks, looking down at screens, and then we go home and sit in our rock solid armchairs and sofas. We replace one static seating situation for another. But if you have a lounging rug and cushions/ottomans to lounge on and read a book or play on, and they can roam around with you – our bodies respond so well to this.
Ben: One of our customers had a beautiful living space with a tile floor and they just didn’t use the space to hang out. He bought one of our sheepskin lounging rugs and what he found was he was suddenly reading the paper on the floor, hanging out with his grandchildren playing board games – something he hadn’t done in 30 or 40 years.
"Connectedness through the medium of nature is at the core of Wilson & Dorset’s philosophy. In today’s society, there are people living all around the world who are quite disconnected from nature. They are living in central city apartments - we wanted to introduce something to those apartments, to modern living, that is truly from nature, which you can touch, to reconnect with the feeling and textures of nature."
What intrinsic qualities do you feel are unique to wool?
Ben: Being hypoallergenic, anti-bacterial and easy to clean, wool is an excellent choice from a health perspective. Wool has other special properties that set it apart as well - like its ability to 'breathe', draw moisture away from your body and regulate your body temperature. It can also absorb pollutants and odours, thereby helping to improve the indoor air quality of your room.
Amanda: Are we converting you yet? It really is a miracle fibre.
With colder months settling in, wool is always an obvious choice. What qualities make wool suitable all year round?
Amanda: Wool is a truly trans-seasonal fibre. Thanks to its hygroscopic abilities, wool constantly reacts to changes in body temperature, maintaining its thermophysical comfort in both cold and warm weather. Wool provides warmth in winter and coolness in summer, which is a unique quality that synthetics can’t offer.
Do you have any expert tips on caring for skins in the home?
Amanda: Ideally, keep sheepskin out of direct sunlight, as with any natural fibre it will fade over time. Sheepskin LOVES a regular, thorough vacuum. If you keep up with this routine and team it with a good shake and airing outside in the shade, you'll find that you'll rarely need to do much else to keep your sheepskin rug clean. If you do have an unexpected accident as we all sometimes do, the most important thing to remember is to first ‘contain the stain’ so it doesn't spread. Don't throw water or other liquids directly onto a stain. This will spread the stain further and can damage the sheepskin backing. Instead, use a clean dry towel or paper towels to firmly blot up the excess liquid then use a commercial wet stain remover. This can be purchased from most supermarkets. It is important to take up all the liquid you can in this first step, as this will ensure you need to use less of the stain remover and will give the best result.
Tigmi is Berber for My Home. What do you feel your home of Wanaka, New Zealand adds to Wilson & Dorsets designs and ethos?
Amanda: The Māori name of our hometown, Wānaka, is a derivation of ‘wānanga’ or place of rest, renewal and higher learning. Wānanga also means to meet and discuss or consider, and is a noun meaning philosopher or sage, knowledge and lore. Our concept – “Free your space” is also linked to this idea of wānanga. It’s about freeing both your physical and mental space. The idea of less is more, cutting the clutter, creating calm and pared-back living spaces where people can recharge, reconnecting with what is important in our modern lives. The W&D ethos is really affirming what is essential to the way you live. Finding the equipoise – that sense of delicate and thoughtful balance. Our designs bring people together, are good looking and practical, encouraging you to reconnect with nature and each other.
Ben: In terms of our furniture pieces, that translates as simple, no fuss, multi-functional design made of New Zealand curly sheepskin inspired by our Wānaka location. We make timeless and enduring pieces that roam around your home with ease. Take our stone sets for example. They are designed to sit on, lie on, put your feet on, place a laptop on or stack as an art form. The role of re-inventing sheepskin becomes yours too!
Tell us more about your design philosophy, ‘a quiet revolution’.
Ben: The funny thing about wool is the more you work and live with it, the more you are blown away by its inherent qualities. Wool really is an incredible fibre.
Amanda: I came to understand the importance of sharing the message of wool when I worked at Icebreaker, introducing their woolly jumpers to the world. We were up against the large synthetic-based companies that had spent a lot of money and time dissing wool as a fibre, saying synthetic was the way forward. The international ground-breaking success Icebreaker had in the merino apparel category is what we are trying to achieve in the home furniture category using strong wool.
Once you understand the power of wool, you start to find others like you who are on a mission to share the story and re-educate people about the benefits of wool in their homes and lives. So that’s our quiet revolution, reigniting the passion for wool again, which in turn supports our farmers, our country and most importantly, our planet.
What is next for Wilson & Dorset?
Amanda: We have an exciting new location for our Wanaka Concept Store – a great opportunity to design a fit out that truly reflects the brand and our connection with nature and the importance of the special place we live in. We want to draw people into a visceral experience so it's almost like you're enveloped in sheepskin. This new look store will be intriguing and hopefully a talking point for locals and visitors alike. We want to explore opportunities to introduce W&D to some overseas markets with shaggy installations and pop up stores. We would love to run a pop-up in Australia next year. I wonder if your readers can suggest the best place for us to come and set up? I spent 2 years in Melbourne and 5 years in Sydney so I’ve got a soft spot for Australia.
Byron Bay is high on my list because we are surrounded by mountains and lakes and rivers here in Wānaka so I most definitely need my ocean fix and the intense sense of calm I get when I see the horizon. We loved our collaboration with Tigmi so we hope we can explore some more fun product ideas with inspiring people and organisations.