100% Australian wool

I’m not alone in my puzzlement over the state of wool in Australia. Scandinavian designer Biggan Ryd-Dups had a hard time finding quality wool for her designs upon migrating to Australia, despite all our sheep. Not only is and was the range limited, but the colourways are generally atrocious. A brief visit to Spotlight today, for example, had me seriously pondering the feasibility of a marshmallow-pink bathmat. What else can one possibly make from loopy stuff that knits into the lovechild of shagpile and terry-towelling? Are Australian knitters mad-keen novelty scarf makers? I’ll admit to being on the receiving end of well-meant bright, sparkly, furry, mottled scarves:

Biggan Ryd-Dups, therefore, started her own ‘niche luxury merino yarn label’—and kudos to her. I have yet to track down Biggan Design wool, and have certainly never seen it in shops. Still, this seems a bit extreme, and leaves us with the original question: where does all our wool go?

Some government primary industries websites go a long way to clearing this up. In 2004, 51% of the wool used across the world in clothing and textiles came from Australia. We export it to 52 different countries, most spectacularly China, who buys $AUD1.3 billion a year, and far less spectacularly, Italy, who buys $300 million. Almost a third of all of our wool is used for knitwear and almost two-thirds for textiles, leaving a very tiny share for hand-knitting.

Desolate Australian crafters


Queensland wool now mostly goes to China, though this has only happened within the last twenty years. Ninety-one percent of Queensland wool is exported to China, Taiwan, Italy, the Czech Republic, France and Germany. There are no mills in Queensland, and the Brisbane wool shop closed down in the nineties, meaning our wool gets sold out of Sydney.

This leads us to a topic of conversation that seems to come up frequently in my circle of academic friends: Australia operates under the guise of a first-world country, but all we really do is dig up or shear our raw materials, wave our arms around saying, ‘over here! Guys! Guys! Natural resources, this way!’ and then lump it all on a big ship and pocket the cash. We have Departments of Primary Industries, but what of manufacturing?

Come and get it

A few clever upstarts have taken advantage of our abundance of raw stuff, such as the Sydney couple who started Nundle Woollen mill (my nearest mill, some seven hours’ drive away) just outside of Tamworth in 2001. My Nanna says their little tourist stop is more than a little disappointing. Nonetheless, some smart business thinking led them to purchase some old mill equipment and to dig into this niche market. In its woolly hey-day, Australia had over 60 mills, which has today dwindled to a sorry few, most notably: the Bendigo Woollen Mills, Creswick Woollen Mill, Patons Mill in Wangarratta, and the Cleckheaton Mill in Shepparton; Nundle Woollen Mill in New South Wales and Waverley Woollen Mill in Launceston, Tasmania.

Why this dramatic drop? The dramatic decrease in sheep farming that Queensland (and presumably the rest of Australia) experienced in the 1990s probably played a huge part. Queensland’s sheep population peaked in 1990-91 at 18 million sheep, and twelve years later had declined to just over 4 million, the lowest ever recorded. Drought played a notable part, but above all, the Reserve Price Scheme collapsed in 1990, resulting in very low wool prices and many farmers leaving the industry for more profitable industries like beef. Clever, Australia.

To return to the mills: An obvious challenge has arisen out of my Wovember investigations. I am compelled to acquire wool from each of the remaining Australian mills and quality test them for myself. Many years ago I knit my second jumper out of a lovely tweed-flecked Cleckheaton, wool I remember my Nanna praising. Here I am modelling it in over thirty-degree (Celsius) heat:

I knit it from an old 1970s Paton’s pattern I found at the library sale for 20c. This shit is fo’ real. I would estimate that this jumper is about six years old, and it has worn incredibly well, especially given the amount I sweat in it because I live in Queensland and it’s never really cold enough. No pilling, not even under the arms.

Cleckheaton was started by one Mr Fred James, who travelled to Yorkshire, England, with the aim of buying wool; Australia having sold the better part of its wool—for a fixed rate—to England during World War II. (Seriously, why all this self-sacrificing?) He happened up on an entire worsted spinning mill, Cleckheaton Ltd, uprooted it and its workers and resettled them in Shepparton, Victoria. Amazing. It seems that the whole history of Australia wool is one of dramatic mill-purchases.

Cleckheaton: quality. Also, it comes in a nice olive shade, and the flecks aren’t too obnoxious. 100% Australian wool.


J: Diary of a Physicist


I slept restlessly. There was a party of Chinamen staying down the hall, and at 3am one of them showed up drunk and hollering outside his friend’s door, taunting him in very loud slurred Chinese until he emerged, making angry sounds, and they left at last so I could finally go back to sleep.

It was still torrential rain outside in the morning, to the point where I actually bought an umbrella just to cross the road to eat breakfast. I could have gone to the café near the hotel, for which they offered a 10% discount, but I asked myself: why would I eat crappy food, just to save money for a person who had expressly said to me `I have too much money, I don’t know what to do with it all’, who, in fact, had offered to pay a taxi to take me from Uni to my hotel the previous day lest I should get wet (the thought!) which I nevertheless declined, being partial to a little light rain – no, I would not eat crappy food to save money for such a person, thank you M.

So I went to a hip little café whose name escapes me, where I ate some pretentious vegan toast (of tofu and spinach) and feeling like a holy twat, pranced on to the Uni with my new blue umbrella at the bright hour of eight in the morning, tutting to myself about how late of an hour it was to be getting up.

Of course, nobody else was at Uni at that hour so I was locked out of my temporary office. Somewhat deflated, I pranced on humbly to the library where I tried to act like I belonged there while reading comics on the internet.

The day progressed with speed, as M seemed to be continuously arriving and then departing again to get yet more coffee and food and then coffee again, dragging me in his wake to talk about esoteric things, only to have to go back and write about them on the whiteboard before going out again for a snack.  This went on well into the night, when we eventually had to leave Uni, so retired to Newtown for some cheap pub food. I washed down two schooners while we were there, because they were cheap, and I needed to soothe the cramps in my stomach that I attributed to some rather fishy Japanese food I’d had for lunch.

I hope that you will forgive my descriptions of these gustatory escapades, but they took up an important part of the day (which was otherwise unremarkable) and it was either that or talk about my research, which is going to be hard enough to do tomorrow to a group of physicists without me having to water it down for you lot. Suffice to say that I am a genius, I have it all figured out, and it’s just a matter of time before they realize this and award me the Nobel prize. Then I will be rich, and doing physics only for fun and not for profit. I will even donate physics to poor people, generous soul that I am, except I doubt they’ll appreciate it.

I’m tired and I’m going to bed again. “It really bugs me,” I said to M over hot chocolate today, “how the time just disappears.” This situation is so bad that I am already becoming a bore to my friends for going on about it so often. If only they realized that it was the persistence of my fascination with time that was itself fascinating (persisting, as it does, through time), they would appreciate my point.


J: Diary of a physicist


I didn’t forget my umbrella. I just didn’t bring it. However, it was pissing with rain in Sydney, so I felt like I had been a fool not to. The taxi driver took me to the University the long way. I know it was the long way, because I was sitting next to him looking at his refidex, and casting him puzzled glances which he was immune to. Well, what do I care. M was paying.

The University of Sydney seemed to hunch over me in the grey rainy sky, but retained its colours of green grass and yellow stone even in the dim morning light. The physics department was a nest of reclusive theorists who seemed largely unable to make small talk. M and I led the party to lunch, and in conversation, and finally left them behind. Nobody else cared about the statistical interpretation of quantum mechanics, or how M recently got dumped, or how I thought it would be cool to play quantum tic-tac-toe.

I stayed later than M at the Uni, then had to find my own way to my hotel. It was raining still, so I played a fun game of trying to find the most sheltered route out of the Uni. Along the way I discovered USyd’s “graffiti tunnel”, a hidden space devoted entirely to graffiti, by anybody. The walls, floor and ceiling were covered in layers on layers of paint so thick you could feel its bumps under your shoes walking over it.

After checking in at The Haven Inn, I grabbed some risotto balls and a glass of wine at the Different Drummer, an indie bar that S and I had tried to get into when we last visited Glebe, but it was too full to sit down. It was quiet tonight however, and I sat with my borrowed copy of Dostoyevsky in my pocket (too dark in there to read) and watched the people come and go. It was good, but on the way back to my hotel I was still hungry so I ate a free-range chicken Kebab in a dumpy mom-and-dad place across the road.

While I ate, dripping grease all over my napkin, I read the local papers that were spread around. A young, twentyish brunette in a blue dress (according to the papers) asked man for a cigarette, then mugged him. Police were still searching. A man was caught at a train station with a pipe-bomb in his jacket, that he later confessed he intended to set off in the city. Across the road from me, a man with a blue plastic bag full of stuff and an orange umbrella marched through the rain, yelling out incoherences at everybody. I wondered where crazy people came from. They were everywhere. I remembered seeing a bum with mad eyes from my taxi window, clasping the air upwards with his broad hands, eyeballing people, waiting from the money to tinkle from the sky. We are all mad, but some more mad than others.

My hotel was a drab place. The carpets in the corridor were stained and torn. The view out my window was of old, dilapidated houses. The floorboards were peeling up. The toilet had two holders for toilet paper, side by side; both were full. I’ve no idea why.

In my room, there was the obligatory giant TV and DVD player, ugly air conditioner gaudy bed-covers and faux-modern lamps on each side. By contrast to all of this, the art on the walls was surprisingly good – stark, surreal photography of ruined-looking places in remote areas of Australia. I made a mental note to look up the artist later. I also wondered if maybe I had bad taste after all.



At long, long last, a woolly package arrived from Cheshire, containing 100% wool!

Black Welsh, huzzah!

My own Wovember plug will consist in a gripe about two inexplicably inconsistent facts:

  1. Australia is the world’s largest wool producer, specialising in merino wool[1]
  2. It is very difficult to come by anything other than ghastly novelty knitting yarn in Australia.

In fact, until recently, for convenience I had relied on imported Italian merino wool stocked by Lincraft, who have since discontinued the line. Frustrated, I went to an independent store in Brisbane’s south, whose severely limited range was restricted to gaudy primary colours or multi-coloured chunky skeins. I had visited them but a week after they had ordered a bunch of stock from Europe. After I refused to purchase some stock they couldn’t shift that was wholly unsuited to my purposes (and the wrong colour), they proceeded to say snarky things like, ‘you should have come last week, then we could have ordered it. Now you’ll have to wait months.’ Rather than pointing out the obvious, which is that I am perfectly capable of ordering things online and having them delivered to my door, rather than theirs, I responded equally snarkily, ‘Oh, I suppose I should have just picked it up in Edinburgh when I was living there.’

Snarky Sherwood wool shops and their poor customer assistance aside, why the hell is it nigh impossible to purchase Australian wool in Australia?

I emailed my nanna who gave me some second-hand farmer’s advice. My nanna’s sister lived until quite recently on a farm in western New South Wales. She used to supply my nanna with fleeces to spin. I have since inherited the spinning wheel in question, and some leftover fleece. However, as my current skill level produces ‘rustic multi-ply,’ this is not a very sustainable source of wool, not to mention I’m not wholly certain of where to obtain more fleece when I have spun it all.

My great-aunt, however, recommends Bendigo Woollen Mills. They spin, they dye, they ship it to you in 200g balls, the equivalent of four regular balls, and at a greatly reduced price. And they offer colours other than Candy-Cane Red, Electric Blue and Tangerine. In fact, they offer a delightful shade of Koala:

Source: Bendigo Woollen Mills

Further research reveals more wool mills near Nimbin, which is likely to have more eye-raping rainbow specimens. However, perhaps I am onto something here. Perhaps, rather than visiting Goulburn’s Big Merino, one ought to take leisurely drives through various hinterlands to buy directly from the source: mills.

A quick search on buying fleeces in Australia led to a short list which suggested just that. Worryingly, while number two on the list was ‘visit your local spinners and weavers guild,’ number three was ‘try farming sheep.’ Um, it just seems that several of my compatriots are already doing a perfectly good job of that.

I have not high hopes for the Brisbane spinners and weavers guild, whose volunteer-run shop seems to specialise in blight-of-the-earth felted atrocities, however, clearly I have several leads to follow. Let the Great Australian Wool Search begin.

Happy Wovember!


Shadow theory

Two exhibition openings in one week? Ah, to be the Duchess.

Friday evening we hopped a bus to New Farm, to sight a spectacle of lemony-fresh still-lifes painted ever-so-skilfully by one Claire Stening. Claire cleverly depicts her kitchen top drawer, her collection of ceramic bowls, and sunny rows of lemons and pears in a way that makes kitchens glorious vibrant retreats.

Perhaps it’s the contrast of the worn with the shiny and bright that makes her assortment of objects more homely than too crisp. For though often crisp, she is not afraid to bring elements of the yucky to her images. Old gumboots, old buckets, and snails, smelly fish and browning pears, tarnished spoons that have lost their gleam and picked up some odd stains. The lemons have little round stickers boasting, ‘Produce of Australia,’ and sporting PLU codes. The mundane, the historic, the intricately decorated slip together with little fanfare. The overriding cleanliness of the paintings save them from being overwhelmed by the messy, smelly bits.

(Forgive the poor quality phone photography in this post)

It was interesting to view these works in light of an old book I am reading by Andrew Loomis, Creative Illustration (1947)*, which is gratuitously filled with nudes and pinups, though certainly not to its detriment. I have been reading some age-old wisdom about depicting things thoughtfully. One would think that drawing and painting is all about the eye, and the hand, and training them to cooperate. Books ought not help one draw, for books engage the brain, which plays no part in transcribing what is seen, other than powering the muscles and reading the retinas. I have begun to realise otherwise.

Loomis writes extensively about all sorts of things that seem very obvious to the artist, such as the fact that background seem blurry to the eye when focusing on the foreground, unlike in much photography, and therefore greater realism is to be obtained by in fact softening the details of things in the background. We know that the real world doesn’t look like photographs, but sometimes it is just difficult to pinpoint why. This is where books by well-practiced, thoughtful artists come in. They tell you how to consciously mimic vision, by carefully thinking about how we see.

Loomis has an enlightening section on shadows, which I must admit I was sceptical about, if only because it seemed to involve too much thought. However, on seeing Stening’s work, I started to think that his principles are far more intuitive than one might first think.

Here is his shadow theory:

From Andrew Loomis, Creative Illustration

Each tonal chart refers to a different type of lighting: strong sunlight, diffuse daylight, strong artificial light and so forth. A bit abstract. Sure, make it real dark if it’s not daylight. However, combined with some theory on reflected light, which results in strong sunlight forcing a second, dimmer light source to light up the shadow, we start to see how this is in fact something we experience every single day:

From Andrew Loomis, Creative Illustration

I encourage you to look up Stening’s pears, because they illustrate this so precisely. While her other objects bask in varying lights that produce highlights and black shadows, her pears are lighted from behind by a block of bright light easily identified as sunlight. First, it shines through a window and is cut into a shape, rather than engulfing the whole painting. Second, the shadows, while darkest near the pears, seem to glow, and the dark sides of the pears also gleam a little golden, though only faintly. No matter what you know about shadow theory, an untrained eye can look at this painting and detect that this light source is more natural than that of the other paintings. It is possible to know what one is experiencing without being able to articulate it. The goal of the artist is to learn how to articulate it, such that she can manipulate it and present a more convincing image to the viewer.

So kudos to Claire, for producing such convincing work. And for including some yucky things amongst the shiny things.

Stillness is showing at the Edwina Corlette Gallery, New Farm, Brisbane.

* Loomis, Andrew. 1947. Creative Illustration. New York: The Viking Press.


How to Tell a Story

The art of storytelling is hideously undervalued in our society. We all have at least a few friends who, although they may lead interesting lives and have all kinds of stories to tell, just have no idea how to engage an audience. Both in writing fiction and in relating our experiences to one another, having the skill to draw out the suspense, emphasize the punch lines and make a coherent narrative is increasingly rare in a world where people spend too much time watching TV instead of creating their own stories.

The basic principles to telling any good story are these: deal in specifics, explore ideas, and pacing.

Dealing In Specifics

How many times have you had someone tell a story in which they get on thing with `some other guys’ to go and see a play, somewhere? People are naturally curious. If you can anticipate the things that people will be curious about when telling your story – what play was it, why did you want to see it, which friends came along – then you won’t leave them feeling frustrated and interrupting you. It is important of course to include only the details that people are curious about and not every single detail. Nobody needs to know what your seat number was or how long you waited in line.

Exploring Ideas

Never mind all the intricacies of constructing plots. The important thing to be aware of is that all good plots are composed of interesting ideas. What if there was a criminal who had a photographic memory? What if the fight took place in a room full of statues? What if the bad guy used his wife as a human shield? Whether it’s the driving idea behind the whole story, such as finding a suitcase full of money near a crashed plane, or just a clever idea about how to make a car chase more interesting, by incorporating paint bombs, every scene in the story should involve some novel idea that is then explored in the story. It need not be as overt as my examples – it could be as subtle as taking the assailant’s point of view, or having the conversation be partly in French to obscure key details – but the building blocks of a story are the basic ideas behind it, and the flesh of the story grows from exploring these ideas through the characters and the events.


This is definitely an art form. Most people who tell good stories simply have an intuitive feel for how to control the flow of information. You want to dwell on the parts of the story leading up to punch-lines, but you want to deliver action scenes fast. It’s like fishing in a way – you have to keep the fish (the audience) interested in the story by paying out the line just enough to give them something without letting them have the whole reel. You have to know how to really milk a story. Often, this comes with practice; by observing the reactions of many audiences to the same story, you can learn to tweak the story to get better reactions. You find out what to emphasize and what to leave out because it gets in the way.

Finally, there is something to be said for knowing how to end a story. Even a riveting yarn will fizzle if you just leave your audience hanging, or end with a non-sequitur. The ending has to be something short, said with finality, that neatly ties up and caps off everything you said up to that point; it is the punch-line to the entire narrative and not just a single event. As my own punch-line, I’ll tell you a story about how I made breakfast today.

Bad version:

`I had oats for breakfast, but we only had skim milk, which I hate because it doesn’t have all the nice fats and protein in it. I have this weird hang-up where I have to eat fats and protein for breakfast or else I feel like my brain doesn’t work. Luckily we had some cream, so I just mixed it together with the skim milk to make normal milk! I was satisfied with the result.’

Good version:

`I stared vacantly at the pot. Oats and skim milk? The ingredients mingled there like the contents of my brain, in a washing machine. It bugged me that we had only skim milk, which as far as I was concerned was white-colored water, wedged into the fridge door next to the thickened cream like an insult. As the stove heated, an idea warmed in my confused morning-mind. “Evil separators of milk and cream, I undo you” I said, mixing like a mad scientist. Later, eating it, I imagined that I could feel the protein waking me up. Brain food.’


The sitter

Last night, in a somewhat befuddled, sickly state, compounded by the heady rush of free pinot noir, the Duchess had the pleasure of tripping along to see an exhibition by Keith Burt at Metro Arts in the city. Entitled ‘The Sitter,’ and ushered away in a small and densely populated room adjoining another exhibition, about which I shall not be writing, only because I wouldn’t do it justice, because I’m afraid I failed to penetrate it; the exhibition under consideration was a careful selection of portraits (my favourite!) and what I shall term post-portraits.

The intimate and unmistakably ‘Queensland’ room in fact does justice to the thoughtful and subdued collection of faces, feet and chairs and sheets. The bottleneck doorway frames a large painting of a Scottish Builder, who poses artlessly on his Van Gogh chair, legs parted like the Red Sea, in tiny builders’ shorts like those my dad wears, and heavy boots. Did this man stumble in from the street? Was he doing some work on Keith’s house, and, having observed, ‘You’re an artist!’ ask to sit for his portrait? This is mere speculation. But his endearing working-class pride and fierce Scotch pride are starkly contrasted with the other characters that we then move on to see around the corner—a smart, pointy-moustached man of a long-gone era, a frumpy, indie redhead girl (also in boots) with her iPhone close to hand, modern-day ‘Paul’, leaning forward eagerly and earnestly with a glass of red, and the feet of a mysterious woman. This is only to name a few. I will try not to give everything away.

Each sitter poses on a chair—maybe an old wooden one, maybe a smart vintage armchair, maybe a couch, maybe a modern armchair. Many wear boots, some sneakers, some polished dress shoes, and one has just kicked off her heels. Now, I don’t know if you’ve detected a trend in the documentation of my own feet within this blog, but I have to say that feet are of great interest to me. First of all, they look funny. Everyone’s feet look funny, in different ways. I have tiny, wide feet, with big toes that bend too sharply inwards. J has a gigantic gap between his big toe and the others, granting him a near opposable-big toe, enabling him to climb trees like a monkey. Secondly, they are useful tools, not in the same way as our hands, but almost equally as important. Sure, you can’t do craft with your feet, but you can walk, and perform tricks with them if you learn ballet, and they cop a hiding from hideous spike-heeled things we like to refer to loosely as ‘shoes.’

But I digress.

I was somewhat baffled by the feet and boots and shoes until I saw the heels, and I thought, ‘I love that feeling!’ My living room has, on any given day, about five pairs of heels strewn across it, on the rug, under the couch, next to the piano. A usual day entails me being outside of the house, wearing heels, for fourteen hours, and ends in me floating blissfully to the couch and baring my feet. I’m sure our Scottish friend feels the same after a long day laying bricks. And Paul has something to get off his chest—he should kick off his shoes and unwind as he swills that wine. But Paul is just a guest, moving on again before the day is over.

And this is where the post-portraits come in. My first encounter with Paul is up close in his troubled face, a small portrait focusing on the distress evident in his features. Across on the facing wall is full-sized Paul, a large painting in which we see him seated beside a table, a bottle of wine beside him. This one is hauntingly called Paul, life and death. Then there is his empty chair, After Paul. Perhaps this is so powerful because it constructs a narrative, and this narrative is interwoven with the narratives of disparate others, some united only by their friendship with the artist—some seemingly respectable time-travellers whose jumbled narratives nevertheless merge with the others.

A girl behind me shrieked decisively, ‘Ghost! Ooh, look at that—sheet and boots, definitely a ghost.’ But I think there is something of preservation in the sheets and the boots, though the sitters have risen and left. Like old furniture draped in drop-sheets in old west wings of gothic mansions, the painter has taken pains to keep everything as it was left. The boots are shaken off, life and death have been philosophised about, now it is time to rest.

Keith Burt’s ‘The Sitter’ is showing at Metro Arts, Brisbane, until Saturday 19 November.