Interview with Stephane Thouvay

Stephane Thouvay
Stephane Thouvay
MD - Product Management & Innovation
Sudwolle Group
Sudwolle Group

Wool is a high-tech and sustainable product
One of the world's leading spinner of pure wool and wool blend worsted yarns, Südwolle Group's product portfolio covers the entire range of worsted yarns from traditional knitting and weaving material for clothing to functional fibres and technical yarns. The Germany-based company is the global market leader for worsted weaving yarn and a premium supplier of high quality yarn for woven men's and women's wear. Stéphane Thouvay, managing director, product management & innovation, speaks to Fibre2Fashion about the versatility of wool.

Let us know about your journey since the inception.

We are proud to be a German family-owned company with more than 50 years of history in production and sales of worsted wool yarns.

The concentration on a few raw-white standard yarns in large quantities was our winning formula in the 1960s. Since then, a lot has happened. Today, Südwolle Group is a global player in textile business, offering a huge variety of worsted yarns made of wool and wool blends. 

At present, we are producing 25,700 tonnes of yarn in long staple spinning in 15 production sites in five countries - China, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and Italy - with 12 sales offices in eight countries. We have around 3,200 employees.

One thing, however, will never change: we know where we come from and our ambition will always be to be a real partner for our customers, with a passion for spinning yarns out of a great fibre.

Which segments in the textile market do you cover?

We specialise in worsted (long staple) yarns, but we also produce carded yarns (short staple spinning) in Italy through our company GTI and viscose yarns on air jet machines in China through our brand Soey.

Our products are processed in weaving, circular, warp and flat knitting. Applications are unbelievably versatile, from the traditional menswear, to fashion and women's apparel, hosiery, outdoor and sportswear and home textile, technical applications such as automotive and aircraft seating, uniforms, protective and work wear.

How do you adapt to market changes?

We are facing a lot of challenges. A typical customer doesn't exist anymore. Clients require customised yarns, small lots, quick response and innovations. 

We have recognised lot of our internal processes to follow this trend. We also made organisational changes and launched our new department, Südwebs, about a year ago. Like a 'web', Südwebs has been created to catalyse innovation - by creating new sustainable products, technologies or business models and by connecting people and ideas. To do so, we are using new tools such as Design Thinking and we enhance collaborative work, internally within all our departments and externally with clients and other stakeholders of the supply chain.

We do not only sell yarn, but also competence around the supply chain and, above all, ideas.

How does your supply chain network work?

One strong feature is our own company network along the supply chain that helps us to share knowledge and gain competence. It begins from our own sheep farm in Mount Hesse in Australia with 33,000 sheep, to various treatment mills, dyeing plants, spinning mills and know-how in Merino fabrics.

Our yarn is bought by customers all over the world. Therefore, we offer supply chains in all continents. We are facing very different market demands with large amounts of stock supported products on one side, and customised solutions for specific needs on the other side. Our clients are not just weavers and knitters, but also fashion, sports or outdoor brands interested in different parameters. Therefore, besides a logistic and commercial supply chain, we also offer competence in supporting customers in their own purchasing and production planning strategies. 

Furthermore, through our sister company Hoftex Group, we offer further expertise in non-woven, automotive and home textiles.

How do you view the wool industry faring these days?

The industry has rediscovered that wool is a high-tech and sustainable product. Through its unique performance features, wool is getting more and more important in sports, active wear and technical textiles. 

Wool is therefore increasingly in demand and we expect that this will not change in the coming years. High demand and limited production pushed wool prices to a historical peak. This is naturally good news for the farmers but puts a part of the wool fabric producers under severe pressure. A lot of them are currently struggling with high prices, especially in the fashion segment as brands and retailers very rarely accept increased prices of the fabrics to maintain a stable selling price for the consumer. This very often leads to downgrading of quality, by using blends instead of 100 per cent wool, for instance.

This is the wrong way to approach this topic. The discussion should not be how to avoid the price increase by reducing the quality, but how to convince consumers to pay a bit more for a top product. The wool industry is working more in a niche market than ever before. Niche markets have different rules than mass markets and we should all appreciate our valuable material. If we keep our efforts directed on how to make our product interesting and wanted, then we can live with prices remaining at the present level. Nobody is questioning the price of a cashmere sweater, right?

Where is the wool sourced from?

Australia - as the biggest producer of wool - is also our biggest supplier. Apart from that, we source naturally in all producing countries, such as New Zealand, South Africa, South America and a few others.

What is your annual export of worsted yarns - wool plus wool blends? Which regions do you export to?

We are producing around 26 million kg of long staple yarn every year that is sold to customers all over the world in more than 70 countries. Countries like China, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, New Zealand or Australia are the main buyers in Asia Pacific. In Europe, Italy, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Scandinavia and Turkey are the major destinations. The United States is also a huge market as many fashion apparel brands are based there.

What are the peculiarities of the worsted yarns that you manufacture?

Four words: quality, consistency, sustainability and innovation.

As already mentioned, we produce yarns for all kind of applications within the textile industry. Today, we are selling more than 3,500 yarn types in over 12,000 colours. This represents about 23,000 single articles sold per year. 

Our yarns are special because of their quality. We use only high quality raw material by sourcing the best wool fibres from across the world. We established an audit system and an award to rank our suppliers for the best wool. Through ongoing training of our staff and elaborate quality management procedures, we are working on continuous improvements throughout our production processes. We have deep expertise and know-how level in all our production sites worldwide and, in comparison to many of our competitors; we assure consistency by offering the same continuous level of quality for each production lot and for all our yarns.

Environmental aspects are playing a major role in our products. Reducing our environmental impact is a key factor everywhere and in everything we do - from raw material and production processes to the final product.

Finally, innovation and research and development (R&D) are other essential pillars in our product strategy.

It seems that there is a lot of focus on R&D, customisation and innovation. Can you please elaborate on this approach?

With our new department Südwebs, we decided to not only set up an innovation department to develop new products, but spread within our organisation a mindset of being curious and open to new ideas and concepts. At the same time, we have intensified collaboration with our supply chain partners. Südwebs goes hand in hand with our network thinking culture. Our motto 'creating and connecting' summarises and describes this very well. Our goal is to work and develop products even more closely with customers and other stakeholders, to exchange ideas and to better understand each other.

Südwolle Group's innovation projects aim to enhance products in terms of performance, functionality, sustainability and design. We develop on average two new yarn qualities every day. 

Talking about spinning technologies, we developed Betaspun, Purespun and, most recently, Omega-Twist to further improve the performance of our yarns and finished fabrics. At the same time, we are developing wool yarns blended with performance fibres, such as Cordura, Thermocatch, Coolmax, Trevira polyester, Tencel and aramid fibres. 

We also dedicate a lot of R&D to sustainability issues. Our treatment Naturetexx Plasma for example is an eco-friendly alternative to the common chlorine-based textile treatments to make wool machine-washable. Naturetexx Plasma just uses electricity and air, no chemicals, to alter the wool fibre in a way that retains its natural characteristics.

Applying the same logic, we are developing new yarns based on recycled and biodegradable raw materials as well.

How are you coping with innovation and the use of latest technology in the market?

The 'Internet of Things' and 'Industry 4.0' have also knocked the doors of the traditional textile industry. We are optimising our business and production processes to be more efficient, flexible and interconnected. 

Robotisation and digitalisation are the two main aspects here and progress is naturally only possible in a collaborative work together with our machine suppliers. Here, we have initiated various projects with a completely new approach to imagine the spinning plant of the future.

Digitalisation is a priority for our company and our management board regularly supervises different projects we have initiated in production, sales and administration. 

Every year we invest several millions of euros in all our production sites worldwide - not only in technology, but also to improve working conditions and for employee satisfaction.

Tell us about your expansion plans.

We will build a production plant in Vietnam to serve the local market there more efficiently and to take advantage of the various trading agreements that Vietnam has negotiated recently. Here, reduced energy consumption is as important to us as the fact that we want to integrate the production site into its environment in a reasonable and sustainable way. 

In addition, we are expanding our global product range, especially for technical yarns, for automotive, home textiles and sportswear. Finally, we are dedicating resources to enhance digitalisation within our group.

Is your company taking certain initiatives for sustainability?

With German roots, we have always been a very responsible company, not just in compliance, employee welfare and corporate social responsibility, but also in environmental improvement. Sustainability has always played a major role for us. We are part of the textile supply chain and we try to constantly improve our environmental performance.

We annually publish Ecobalance, a sustainability report that measures and documents our performance in waste water management, chemical use and other relevant statistics. We are ISO 9001, 14001 and 50001 (energy management) certified.

We also take the requirements from Detox and Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals Foundation (ZDHC) very seriously. We are working very hard to meet the standards and we receive regular satisfying reports from brands following audits in our dyeing and treatment plants. We are very proud of these achievements.

Finally, we are offering all relevant eco-certifications for our products, such as OEKO-TEX, GOTS, IVN Best. We are also a Bluesign system partner.

What new has been planned for the future?

We count on a continuous growth in the outdoor sector and in technical yarns. From the innovation side, we also see potential in segments where wool is not such a big topic at the moment.

Digitalisation, sustainability and the enhancement of our products through R&D are three key strategic topics that will keep us busy in the next three years. We look optimistically into the future with a head full of ideas and a lot of passion for our industry. (RR)
Published on: 29/03/2018

DISCLAIMER: All views and opinions expressed in this column are solely of the interviewee, and they do not reflect in any way the opinion of