Flame resistant clothing prevents horrific war burns

Posted on 14 Dec 2012
Production spinning mill that makes the fire resistant merino wool clothing.
Production spinning mill that makes the fire resistant merino wool clothing.

A Derbyshire start-up has developed a thin material clothing under layer that is four times more fire resistant than commonly used synthetic materials and can help prevent wound contamination.

Synthetic materials have been reported to melt on to the skin and into the wounds of soldiers injured in combat by explosions.

To counter this, Armadillo Merino created a range of tops and leggings from merino wool, a naturally flame resistant product, for soldiers, fire fighters and other professions exposed to high heat and fire.

The firm has just clinched an order worth over £25,000 to supply their merino base layers, launched in 2011, to the Italian navy.

Its new order will add to the company’s existing orders to supply European policemen, and international special forces units.

Managing director Andy Caughey previously worked for The New Zealand Merino Company so he knew the benefits of the material well.
Managing director Andy Caughey previously worked for The New Zealand Merino Company so he knew the benefits of the material well.

Managing director Andy Caughey started the business with his own money and quickly realised the value of wool’s naturally fire resistant characteristics.

“The heat from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq and elsewhere causes the synthetic base layer to melt into the skin causing unnecessary injuries,” he said.

The US marines banned polyester and nylon products in 2006 due to the substantial burn risk when exposed to extreme heat and flames as they will melt and can fuse to the skin.

According to Dr Lynn Welling, a head surgeon in the US Navy, if the synthetic material melts on to the skin it can lead to horrific and disfiguring burns.

“Burns can kill you and they’re horribly disfiguring,” said Dr Welling. “If you’re throwing a melted synthetic material on top of a burn, you have a bad burn with a bunch of plastic melting into your skin, and that’s not how you want to go home to your family,” said Welling.

Caughey is in talks with the US military but says that winning a contract is “difficult due to the procurement rules that protect US manufacturers.”

While polyester melts at 160°C, merino wool, which comes from sheep in New Zealand, is flame resistant to temperatures up to 600°C.

“It has evolved over thousands of years to protect sheep in extremes of heat, humidity and cold,” he explained.

Fire fighters may also benefit from the product.
Fire fighters may also benefit from the product.

Although merino wool has commonly been used for fine luxury apparel, Mr Caughey said that a lack of technology and efficient production methods meant that he wouldn’t have been able to manufacture the product for this application five years ago.

However, the entrepreneur has outsourced to facilities in the South Pacific and Eastern Europe and continues to work with Nottingham Trent and Derby universities to design the clothing.

“We have reinterpreted the wools use by using modern manufacturing techniques to create new fabrics with a modern twist,” he concluded.

A number of militaries are currently trialing and testing the product and it is something that defence forces around the world look likely to purchase despite decreasing budgets.