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Gone are the days when you had to swaddle your limbs in thick woollen sweaters and jackets to stay warm. Fashion brands are pioneering new fabric technologies to keep us cosy. It's no longer a case of choosing between warmth or fashion – natural fibres are being put together in happy marriages sealed in science laboratories. Winter woollies can now block out wind chill, they can keep wearers dry, and perform on sports fields. In the latest development, wool is being spun into lightweight, minimalist shoes such as the Allbirds made by former All White captain Tim Brown and a San Francisco scientist. Luxury yarns such as perino - possum and merino blends – are getting more refined and being created in gorgeous colours. Wool is lightening up.

Pests make magic

Those pesky possums that cause havoc in our forests are being spun into a new luxury fabric that fashion queen Peri Drysdale raves about. The Untouched World founder has come up with a gorgeous new fabric that blends soft, downy possum fur with luxurious cashmere and silk. Named Kapua, which means cloud in Maori, the only hitch is that it's not cheap, at $119 to $950 for an accessory or garment.

Kapua is the outcome of a partnership between Lower Hutt's Woolyarns and Untouched World. By blending three of nature's finest fibres; luxurious cashmere (40 per cent), the winter downy undercoat of the possum (40 per cent), and silk (20 per cent), the yarn was born. Says Drysdale: "It performs and it won't pill or prickle. The key thing about it is that it looks amazing years later."

Her Kapua jumper is her go-to-piece. "If you are going to pay $300 for a cashmere sweater anyway, the difference is that this one doesn't need to be looked after. We tell customers to thrash them."

Over 20 years ago, her clothing company, Snowy Peak, named after the Canterbury high country merino station where she grew up, knitted the first ever possum and wool garment. Through her brand, Untouched World, she pioneered her second yarn, Merino Mink in 1996, blending fine merino, brushtail possum fibre, silk for strength and with angora added to make lighter colours. After years of extensive research separating the downy possum fibre from possum fur, she is now excited about her second winter of Kapua garments, which are 55 per cent warmer than merino and 35 per cent warmer than cashmere. "They're perfect for winter as they're so light. Possum is an otherwise wasted material, so it's a double win," she says.

Through Untouched World, Drysdale's mission is to create clothes that are easy care, easy wear, and easy on the earth.

A light touch

Mark Koppes loves a challenge, and his current one is to make warm clothing as weightless as possible. Head of product at Icebreaker, the Portland-based designer has seen sweeping changes in athleisure clothing since he started out at Nike about 25 years ago. Clothes should no longer get in the way, they should perform, and they should look stylish. Versatility is a big plus.

When it comes to winter warmth, Koppes says: "There has been an interesting surge back to natural fabrics. People want clothing that is natural, stylish, and they can wear it for a lot of the time. We're dressing more casually. People want something they can wear for sport and the outdoors without having to get changed to go out at night. They're saying, "Why can't I be comfortable all the time?"

Former head of apparel at Nike, Koppes is most excited about Icebreaker's Loft fabric, which is made from a water resistant nylon outer layer, recycled merino for insulation, and merino lining. Icebreaker's warmest fabric, it features in the Stratus jacket, which boasts 180 grams of loft insulation in the jacket body, and 100 grams in the sleeves. "Loft is the one we're really excited about, as it captures air and is an insulating layer to keep you warm. It means the jacket is sleeker than the puffa jacket so it looks stylish too."

New this winter is the "Schacket" for men - a fully reversible shirt/jacket that is a traditional classic wool shirt on one side, and a recycled nylon jacket on the other, bolstered by merino loft insulation. "The notion is versatility. You can ski in the mountains in it, and turn it into a shirt for the evening. Customers want more usable garments. They're rejecting a lot of material goods. People want multi-use apparel that does more for them."

Wild about wool

Growing up near Russia's Black Sea, Kate Mischler had a pair of knitting needles in her hands by the age of four. Taught to knit by her mother and maternal grandmother, she made her own jumpers and woollen garments as a child and teenager. Living in Auckland now, the self-taught designer launched her knitwear brand, Elka, four years ago, starting out handknitting commissioned pieces. She calls herself a knitwear artist, and likes to create contemporary designs that are luxury, special items.

Mischler's yarn of choice is perino - a possum, merino, and silk blend, once again developed by Woolyarns. She was commissioned to develop a perino knitwear range for a international knitwear fair in Florence last year, and some of those pieces are now part of her exclusive range. "It's a luxurious material that drapes and is so light and amazing to wear. It's better than any other material I've ever worked with."

"It's so unbelievably warm. It's like being in a toasty warm house without the heating on. You can only compare the feel to cashmere, but even then, it's lighter and warmer."

Perino is expensive, though, and has been used in the past by luxury brands like Hermes and Louis Vuitton, according to Woolyarns managing director Neil Mackie. Last year, Woolyarns refined the fibre even more, and extended the colour palette. But Mackie doesn't think it will take off here, as it's so exclusive and only going to become even more rare. "It's a refined product targeted at the top end of the market."

With an estimated 30 million possums in New Zealand, fur from wild-caught possum has been used in clothing since 1996. The Fur Council has estimated that it takes 1800 possums to get one kilogram of possum fur, but the soft downy fur only makes up a quarter of that fibre. The fur is sourced from the wild pest possum population on DOC land, according to strict hunting rules, and the industry is worth $100 to $150 million a year. Says Mischler: "My garments are investment pieces. I don't design disposable fashion, but pieces that are elegant and contemporary."Read more at:short formal dresses