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.
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?
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.