Possum wool is arguably New Zealand’s national fibre. It is astoundingly warm, shockingly light, phenomenally soft, and an absolutely luscious yarn to work with. Best of all, when you knit with possum wool you’re helping to control a pest that has wreaked havoc on New Zealand’s native life. Learn what possum wool is, why possums are such a problem in New Zealand and how Kiwi ingenuity found a way to utilise this wonderful fibre.
What is possum wool?
Possum wool is yarn made from a blend of the fur of the New Zealand brushtail possum and another fibre or fibres. (There is no 100% possum wool yarn; the fibres are too short.) Possum can be blended with cotton, silk, cashmere, merino wool, and other materials to create a yarn that is lighter, softer and warmer than the other fibre on its own. And with every stitch of possum wool you knit or crochet, you are also helping New Zealand overcome one of its worst environmental issues.
New Zealand’s possum problem
Back in the 1850s, some numpty whose name is lost to history had the absolutely idiotic idea to create a fur industry in New Zealand by letting Australia’s brushtail possum loose. This experiment went pretty well for the possums, which were suddenly in a predator free environment. (Well, mostly predator-free. There were those human hunters, but they didn’t hold the possum population explosion back one bit!)
It went less well for New Zealand’s native wildlife and plant life, which became an all-you-can-eat buffet for those pesky possums. Today those 30 million possums will devour 21,000 tonnes of New Zealand’s plant life. And tomorrow they’ll do it again. And again. They’ll devour bird eggs and chicks from species such as kiwi, fantail, weka, tūī, kōkako and kererū. Only 15 years after they arrive in a forest, the forest canopy will collapse due to their hunger.
As if that weren’t enough, possums also are a threat to New Zealand’s cows. It turns out possums are one of the species that can carry bovine tuberculosis. And they don’t just carry it; they spread it to cattle. 75% of TB-infected cattle are found in areas where possums carry the disease.
In order to save New Zealand’s ecology, possums need to be eradicated. Containment is not enough. Wherever they go, environmental devastation follows, which is why possums will never be farmed here.
Sadly, we can’t just buy them plane tickets to Brisbane. Even though the species is endangered in its native land, Australia has no interest in repatriating a passel of possibly tubercular possums. (Australian species that have lived in NZ for a while don’t survive in their ancestral homeland.) So the methods have to be a bit more, erm, terminal. And there’s a timeline too; the government plans to eradicate possums from all of New Zealand by 2050.
But from great environmental challenges comes great yarn.
What do possums have in common with polar bears?
In 1991, Phyllis Huitema handed researcher Fazil Khan a pile of possum fur and asked if he could do something with it. Khan, apparently up for a challenge, brought it back to his office at Wools of New Zealand and began to experiment. Within two weeks, he’d created a yarn that was 80% wool and 20% possum fibre. And he began to discover the unique properties of possum fibre.
Though the possum lives in Australia’s tropics, it wears a wool coat that’s designed for the North Pole. Like polar bears and reindeer fur, each possum hair shaft is hollow. Because it’s hollow, even if it gets cold or wet it still holds in heat. (Kind of like how the double walls of a Thermos hold in heat for your coffee!) Possum wool is the third warmest in the world. It’s 55% warmer than merino wool. With such warm fur, no wonder they prefer cool New Zealand to sultry Australia!
You may wonder why, if it’s so warm, there isn’t a 100% possum wool yarn. Unfortunately, the individual hairs are too short to be turned into a yarn on their own. Instead, it’s blended with other fibres to add its magical qualities.
Possum wool: light and soft as a cloud
Those hollow hair shafts have another side effect: they make possum wool almost ethereally light. On its own, possum fur is so light that it will float away with a soft breeze. This lightness means that as it makes yarn warmer, it simultaneously reduces weight. It makes possum wool yarn lighter and warmer than cashmere.
That’s not the only way possum wool is heavenly! Each strand of yarn has a soft and fuzzy halo. This silky halo isn’t just beautiful to the touch. When manufacturers blend it with cashmere or wool, it also provides protection from pilling and shrinkage. Projects made from possum wool yarns are more likely to keep their shape and stay in good form than most other wool items. You can toss most of them in the wash!
And if you’re familiar with the concept of “blooming,” in which yarns puff up and get softer when washed, possum wool is the all-time blooming champ. You’ll want to use patterns that lend themselves to blooming.
OMG, how do I get my hands on this amazing yarn?
Are you in love with the idea of possum wool and want to try it out? We’ve got some options for you! The company that invented possum wool yarns manufactures all of our featured yarns below. Many products linked below has free patterns you can use to knit up an amazing creation. You may want to stock up; if New Zealand succeeds in its goal of eradicating the predatory possum pest by 2050, there won’t be any more possum yarn.
Zealana Heron is especially great for caps, sweaters, mitts and scarves. It’s also a great yarn for any felting projects you may have. It’s is soft, warm and durable. The blend of 80% fine New Zealand merino and 20% brushtail possum is fluffier than you might expect! Many of the yarns have a heathered look to them, and the possum creates some beautiful haloing.
Zealana Kauri is soft and warm as a summer breeze. It knits up easily and is perfect to make something you’ll want to snuggle up in. The unique blend of fine New Zealand merino, mulberry silk, and brushtail possum is resistant to pilling, machine washable and shows stitch definition very well. It comes in a second weight too, Zealana Kauri Worsted.
Zealana Cozi sock yarn is the perfect yarn for when your toes need a little warm luxury without pinching your pocketbook. It’s Zealana’s first sock yarn and is part of their Artisan range. If you want to knit socks that will give the wearer a little jolt of sensuous joy whenever they put them on, this is the yarn you’ve been searching for. It promises high performance luxury without the high price.
Zealana Tui is part of the Artisan series and brings the luxury with a blend of merino, cashmere and possum. It’s lofty, it’s chunky and it feels like that snuggly dream you had just before the alarm went off in the morning. If you’re looking for a chunky yarn that is deliciously soft and incredibly warm, you’ve found it. It’s great for scarfs, sweaters and anything else designed to keep you warm and cozy.
Zealana Air is a blend of brushtail possum down, cashmere and mulberry silk that is as soft as a unicorn’s tail. It’s springy, pill-resistant and a dream to knit with. It has fantastic drape and colour depth. And did we mention that it’s lighter and warmer than 100 % cashmere? Air is a yarn of extremes – it comes in this superfine weight, and also comes in Zealana Air Chunky.
Wait, a possum yarn for summer knits? I thought you said it was warm? What is this black magic? Well, yes, possum wool can be warm, but this blend incorporates cotton as well as merino, making it light, durable and good for year-round projects. In addition to fingering weight, you can also try Zealana Kiwi Lace for a superfine yarn.
We’ve restocked recently, but if we’re sold out of your favorite colour don’t be sad! Contact us and we’ll be happy to order it in for you.
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