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June 2017 – Fibreshed Melbourne

“You need to talk to Ixchel bunny. She has the most amazing angora fibres!” I’d just told a friend that I was researching my Fibreshed project. Hers was the second recommendation I’d had. That meant I was already curious by the time I first met IxCHeL’s owner Charly.

Charly is an eagerly anticipated fixture at many of Victoria’s fibre markets. I met her at the Handknitter’s guild fair in Coburg. She’s so friendly I had to wait in line to talk to her. Luckily for me, that meant I got talking to Wil, who’s been a great advisor to me ever since. Charly’s good at drawing good people to her.

Charly cuddling a 10 week old English angora kit. This gets it used to handling, combing and clipping.

I’d have loved to have visited Charly’s farm to check out her angora bunnies, but it would be too dangerous. Biosecurity on this type of fibre farm has to be extremely high to make sure the animals stay safe. Humans can be carriers of calici virus. This deadly disease, together with myxomatosis, is used in Australia to control wild rabbit populations. Unfortunately for domestic rabbits, the diseases don’t discriminate. Charly vaccinates against the strains of calici virus she can, but that doesn’t provide 100% cover. The myxomatosis vaccination is not permitted in Australia.

Instead, I quizzed Charly about her work in order to write this post. She also provided all the photos below.

IxCHeL farm

Charly has lived in at least four different continents. Love brought her to Australia. She has a beautiful little property in the Yarra Valley with her partner Paul. It’s tucked away between the mountains with a lush green paddock, plenty of water and wildlife.

The property’s small size means Charly can’t keep large livestock herds. Angora bunnies work here because they don’t need much space. It wasn’t just practical reasons that lead Charly to farm angora. She’s always felt an affinity with rabbits. Charly’s mother and grandmother were rug weavers, so she’s been immersed in fibre from a young age.

The Ixchel Farm and the Little Yarra River.

How to keep bunnies

A rammed earth enclosure under the veranda of the farmhouse has become the perfect bunny dwelling. During the day the angoras run in their enclosure. At night they’re kept safe in their bunny night cages. Underneath the night cages Charly has installed worm farms. They catch and process the rabbit’s droppings. The results enrich the farm’s veggie patches. This loop feeds the humans and bunnies on the property. Charly keeps her herd under 100 animals and doesn’t breed to sell for pets. This gives her a sustainable number to cover the needs of her fibre business. Each of her rabbits has a name.

Caring for angoras is very labour intensive. They need daily grooming and need their fur clipped at least every few months. Good grooming and maintenance helps reduce wool block. Charly’s herd has suffered several setbacks. Despite vaccinating against calici, a few years ago 75% of her herd was lost to a new strain of the virus. They’ve suffered from a different strain since then. They are currently on full alert because a new strain has been released. An additional new Korean calici virus strain is set to be released by the government this autumn. There are no new vaccines available. There have been reports of rabbit deaths in their local area.

Producing angora

Charly hand dyes, blends and spins tops and yarns on farm. She blends her angora bunny fibre with Navajo churro, Australian merino, wallaby and other rare breeds. Angorino is her angora and Australian merino blend. Her products are unique and only available in short runs, so you have to get in quick. Check the Ixchel blog for product updates every Friday night at 8 pm AEST. She also offers subscription clubs.

She works with Cashmere connections to do her bigger blends. IxCHeL is a great source of  rare breed fibres from around the world, such as vicuña, guanaco, qiviut, bison and rare sheep breeds like the North Ronaldsay and Norwegian Gra Troender.

Cashmere Connections

I stood outside Cashmere Connections, pondering their sign. It promised to process cashmere, angora, alpaca and cashgora. What is cashgora?! Is that an animal I haven’t heard of yet?

I called Trisha to let her know I had arrived; she came out from the workshop to let me in. She’s friendly and casual, but is a wealth of information and a patient explainer! We walked to the storage area, so I could see where the process begins.

The business

A cashmere farmer, Trisha and her husband developed Cashmere connections as a way to add value to their fibre product. They buy fibre direct from farmers and have it scoured at Velieris. Then they card and comb the fibres for worsted, semi-worsted and woollen spinning.

Cashmere connections processes smaller quantities of quality product. They concentrate on local and international niche markets of doona makers and spinners. Their tailored service is key to their ability to process so many different fibres well.

Entering the combing machine

Fibre being drawn into the combing machine

The process

Each kind of fibre is different: suri is dense and slippery; needing carding in small quantities or the machinery jams. Wool and cashmere don’t have the dust issues that alpaca has. Goat and alpaca fibres intended for spinning need dehairing to remove coarse hairs. That cashgora I was wondering about? It’s a cross between cashmere and angora goats.

The machinery at Cashmere connections is deliberately old. New machinery assumes a standardised product and can break fine animal fibres. Older machinery can be adjusted for each fibre type. Trisha even adjusts machinery for each individual batch according to its characteristics.

Before carding, anti-static is added to the fibres. A fine mist of water fills the room that holds the carding machines. The water relaxes the fibres and reduces dust. Fibres come out of carding as a sliver. This is fed into gilling machines three times, or more if suri fibre is being processed. The slowest part of the process is combing, before one last run through the gilling machine.

Exiting the combing machine

Exiting the combing machine. So light and lofty!

The potential

Under a cover in a corner of the workshop, Trisha unveiled a different piece of equipment. It is a repco spinner from the 1960s. Trisha’s been experimenting with is, in the hope she can offer worsted spinning as a service. Its different to other spinners I’ve seen, spinning 2 plys at a time. Trish’s got some lovely sample cones and knitted swatches. The process isn’t to a commercial standard yet. Fingers crossed it will be soon!

Cashmere connections has a small shop on site, but you can also find their products online. They sell beautiful throws and exquisite single fibre and blended tops. You might manage to meet Trisha in person; on occasion she holds a stall at the natural fibres market.

Yarn samples

Yarn samples


I’d been given a contact name and an address to visit but had no idea what to expect. It turns out I’d been directed to Wool2Yarn’s factory shop and fibre mill. They’re located close to the Nepean Highway.

Let’s go shopping

The factory shop is welcoming and inspirational. The space is like a trendy store: full of beautiful products, without feeling cramped. They sell yarn (pure alpaca or blends), Gotland sheep roving, and a range of beautiful hand knits made locally. I would love the little grey capelet in the photo below for myself! The range of yarns includes Salvation, which incorporates fibre reclaimed from the milling process. Knit kits provide all you need to make a garment in one convenient package.

The factory store at Knit Alpaca

The factory store at Knit Alpaca

Get to work

Best of all was visiting the workspace at the back where all the fibre mill equipment is! Belinda runs this workshop with her husband Alasdair. They were alpaca farmers and they’ve poured this wealth of knowledge into the  mill. I was intrigued that Belinda can tell if an animal has been sick. A sick animal’s fibre will break during spinning.

I got to see the dehairing machine remove scratchy guard hairs from the fleece. Belinda keeps trying to find another use for these waste guard hairs. There’s so much vegetable matter in the fleece, they’re only good for reseeding grass! Next up was the carding machine. It has a fascinating range of different brushes to align the fibres.

Machine spinning yarn

Single strand yarn winding on the spindle

At this stage Belinda separates out tops for the felters and hand spinners. The rest are drawn out into rovings for the spinning machine. She will spin strands back onto themselves in different combinations to make multiply yarns. Last step is the steaming machine. This relaxes the fibres after all the ‘excitement’ of spinning. I couldn’t work out how to photograph this curious contraption. It consists of a thin tube on one end, which the yarn gets sucked into. The yarn is then connected to another tube a few meters away to complete the process.

Alpaca yarn

My first alpaca yarn stash!

The yarn is wound onto a cone for machine knitters. Hand knitters can choose from twisted skeins or rolled balls. I took home some of their single balls. They’re small, but proving to be good inspiration!

Granite Haven

I’d been looking forward to visiting Granite Haven for months. It’s the perfect name for a farm in the Strathbogie ranges. The land here is hilly, with short grass dotted with granite rocks. It reminds me a little of Scotland, but there are more eucalypts here!



Cheryl had opened Granite haven to the public for a day and she’d been hosting visitors all morning. We were lucky to arrive at a quiet time so we had Cheryl and her husband Warren’s attention all to ourselves!

We visited the sheep in the lowest paddock. They were all interested to meet us because Cheryl had a snack for them. I was surprised to see the sheep coming up to Cheryl for cuddles; she knew where they liked to be scratched!

Gotland sheep. The Vikings used these sheep for meat and skins on their voyages.

Gotland sheep. The Vikings used these sheep for meat and skins on their voyages.

Cheryl runs her Gotlands in family groups, and believes their nutrition levels benefit from year round open range. Cheryl taught me that whethers produce good fleeces, because they haven’t put all their energy into bringing up a lamb. Gotlands aren’t flighty like other sheep breeds, they’re friendly and won’t run away. Cheryl’s seen them play on rock piles in the field and says they’re very funny. Cheryl and her husband have a playful way about them too, I think they’ve found animals that compliment that 🙂

Gotlands are traditionally grey. Cheryl’s bred them to bring out black, charcoal, white and blended silver grey to charcoal colours. Their wool has a long staple, high lustre and soft handle. The grey wool overdyes in beautiful soft tones. Cheryl’s wool is either processed on the farm or at a mini mill. In both cases, she makes sure that phospherous-free detergents are used. She’s well versed and proud of the low environmental impact of her fibres.

We also got to visit Cheryl’s llamas. They’re alarmingly large compared to alpacas, but they were just as curious about us as we were of them. I love that Cheryl bought them because she likes to trek in the surrounding hills! Llamas love a dirt bath, so their fibre is more trouble to process. Cheryl does sell llama tops but doesn’t process yarn any more. She’s been told by spinners that llama has a reputation for being better than alpaca, but we’re not exactly sure why.

Yale with llama

Yale with llama

All the farmers I’ve met so far have been wonderfully open and helpful, but Cheryl takes the cake. She’s given me a list of people to contact and had lots of good tips for the Fibershed project. Best of all, Cheryl told me about an experimental yarn blend she’s working on that could be an eco-alternative to conventional sock yarn (which contains non-biodegradable nylon). I’m going to use this idea when making my first #1year1outfit garment!

Cheryl had a small farm shop open on the day full of rovings, plain and blended yarns in skeins. She also sells knitting kits with beautiful patterns by independent designers. I was amazed how tight Cheryl’s margin on yarn is – it was a wake up call for me on how challenging developing a boutique product can be.

Products in the Granite haven farm shop

Products in the Granite haven farm shop

We left Cheryl and Warren as the sun was setting over the granite hills. We’d stayed much longer than we intended, warmed by stories, cups of tea and cake. The trip had been worth the wait!

Australia is the largest exporter of greasy wool for fine apparel in the world trading over 323 tonnes in 2013 (FAO, 2013.) Rachel Bucknall from Fibreshed Melbourne met with local wool growers Wendy Dennis and Tom from Tarndwarncoort who envision a much more local, connected future for their wool and the land.

I took my mother to a sheep farm for Mothers’ day. In fact, I convinced two of my aunts and my grandmother to come as well. I freely admit the selfish impulse behind this invitation (it meant I could do some more research for my Fibershed project). What gave me confidence to propose this audacious plan was that the sheep farm was putting on high tea. Tarndwarncoort is under two hours drive from Melbourne, only a short way off the Princes Highway between Colac and Winchelsea. It is a working sheep farm that is also working hard to welcome visitors. It offers boutique accommodation, a woolshop, a studio cafe, tours, and events. The beauty of the courtyard made us smile as we entered. Wendy came to greet us. We were early for tea, so she suggested we sit in the warmth of the wool shop. Tarndwarncoort wool is grown and processed locally, and while the majority is sent to New Zealand for fine spinning, a new local mill, The Great Ocean Road Woollen Mill has provided the opportunity to collaborate and begin production of a uniquely local product.

Tarndwarncoort's courtyard

Tarndwarncoort’s courtyard

Dennis comebacks

Tarndwarncoort is the home of the Polwarth sheep; Australia’s first sheep breed. Wendy and I sat down so she could show me how the Dennis family breed this sheep. It’s telling that as she went on, more of my family stopped browsing to join us and ask questions. It’s an interesting story, and Wendy tells it well. The Dennis family arrived in the 1840s with a breed of Saxon Merinos. They discovered their sheep weren’t well adapted to the wet and cold environment of this area so Richard Dennis tried cross breeding. He crossed his Merinos with Lincolns, a heavy breed of sheep famous for its long but coarse locks. This first cross results in a Corriedale, which is New Zealand’s first breed of sheep. However Corriedale fleece is coarser than Merino fleece, so Richard experimented further. He bred his Corriedale back with a Merino. It is this cross that was eventually refined into the Polwarth breed. Polwarths have the hardiness and long staple length of Lincolns, but retain a lot of the softness of Merinos as well. At each stage of the story, Wendy produced a sample of each breed’s fleece. Touching the fleece of a Merino, Lincoln, Corriedale and Polwarth helped me understand the differences in each breed’s wool.

How Polwarths were bred. Top left: a Lincoln sheep. Middle left to right: Corriedale, Merino, Richard Dennis. Bottom: a Polwarth sheep.

How Polwarths were bred.
Top left: a Lincoln sheep. Middle left to right: Corriedale, Merino, Richard Dennis. Bottom: a Polwarth sheep.

Colouring in

Traditionally sheep farmers would selectively breed for white sheep, because their fleece can be dyed a wider range of colours. Occasionally recessive genes would reappear in black, grey or brown lambs, so these would be culled. Wendy began wondering if these coloured lambs could be useful in the 1970s. She kept them and her husband David bred up a coloured flock. Hand spinners and knitters loved coloured fleece, because they like the natural colours and don’t need to dye. Coloured fleece now contributes to a big part of Tarndwarncoort’s income.

The Tarndwarncoort wool shop

The Tarndwarncoort wool shop

Back to back

Wendy organises an incredible challenge each year to promote wool and raise money for cancer research. Its called the International Back to Back Wool Challenge. Each team of eight is challenged to blade shear a sheep from their country of origin, process and knit the fleece into a jumper within 24 hours! Australia currently holds the record at 4 hours 51 minutes 14 seconds. Let me say that again. A team managed to hand cut a fleece, spin it, and then knit a jumper in less that FIVE HOURS. Wow.

Fine dining

We were eager to learn more, but it was time for tea. We were lucky to be seated in the gracious, well worn dining room. My family loved the antique porcelain display. I loved sharing a room with Angie Smales, who was playing zither to entertain us for the day. Angie played old songs like Greensleeves beautifully. She must have strong fingers, she played for over an hour! The food served was simple, home made and inventive. We’d never had savoury profiteroles before, but it’s definitely given us some ideas for our own creations! I thought the plates were beautifully arranged. They were decorated with trimmings from the gardens.

High tea sweets

High tea sweets

In-between courses, Wendy and David’s son, Tom, took us on a tour of the homestead and gardens. The Dennis family has lived in this area for 175 years. Tom knows so much of his family’s history and has a wonderfully entertaining way of telling the story. We started in the dining room, where photos of each generation of the family to have lived here hang. Tom can count back six generations and I could identify a lot with his story. My own family established a sheep run about 150km north of Tarndwarncoort a few years later.

Generations of the Dennis family

Generations of the Dennis family

Tom then took us out to the gardens, which have a lovely old English feel to them. There is a water well with the bell hanging above. This came from the ship the Dennis family sailed out to Australia in. There is also a stone chair built out of the remains of the first homestead’s hearth. A drawing of that old homestead has been made into a brass plaque to show what it looked like.

The first house at Tarndwarncoort

The first house at Tarndwarncoort

The family originated from Cornwall, and you can see the influence of their background on the homestead’s architecture. Tom pointed out where the house was added to as the family fortunes rose and fell over the years. Tom runs these tours to raise money for the maintenance of the house. So far he’s been able to modernise the wiring and gutters, a very important but expensive undertaking. My aunt quipped that Tom should consider having Country House Rescue to visit. Tom agreed, but said he was also a little scared of Ruth Watson!

Tom’s dreams for the Homestead are to build it’s offering to visitors to connect with fibre production. The historic site is uniquely placed to present an accessible experience of Australian wool in its production phase, and as a place to connect local artisans. Tom hopes that with a new regenerative farming and focusing on producing a unique product Dennis family can continue to produce 100% Polwarth wool well into the future.

I made my goodbyes to Wendy before we left and thanked them all for their hospitality. My family talked about the day all through the drive home – we had a wonderful time!

Pitchingga Ridge Alpacas

It was hard to keep my eyes on the road as I drove into Red Hill. It’s such a pretty, rolling green hills kind of a place.

Jean at Pitchingga Ridge had warned me that Google maps sends you the wrong way to their farm. I made sure to ignore my GPS and enter from Mornington-Flinders road. The farm is on the unsealed, but well maintained Stony Creek Road. My little rental Corolla handled it easily.

David met me first, with Abbie the kelpie. He brought me over to meet the alpacas, including a cria (baby alpaca) that was only two hours old! Pitchingga Ridge keep huacaya and suri alpacas. They graze together in a beautiful setting.

Huacaya alpacas at Pitchingga Ridge

Huacaya alpacas at Pitchingga Ridge

The personal side

Jean had told me she had another visitor coming. Soon after I arrived, a family drove up, cradling a limp cria. Jean inspected it with an experienced hand. She suspected hypothermia and called a vet. They bundled the baby in a blanket with hot water bottles and hand fed it a sugar solution. Jean told me she couldn’t do much, but I could see the family were grateful for her advice.

In the meantime, David took me to their farm shop. The Daddos’ sense of style has come through in their choice of products. The shop offers yarn and exquisite hand-knitted garments, both made locally. There are also smart reversible coats and sleek 100% suri wraps from Peru. David leant me an alpaca rug while we talked and it was so warm I didn’t want to give it back 😉

Pitchingga ridge products

Products in the Pitchingga ridge farm shop

The business end

I learnt that Pitchingga Ridge is part of Q-alpaca. This voluntary program reduces the risk of disease entering or spreading from a property. With this in place,  the alpacas at Pitchingga Ridge don’t need as much medication. There is a designated vet for the program that audits their property each year.

Jean and David are members of the Australian Alpaca Association. Hearing their stories helps me understand how important associations are. They work to improve and promote their industries. They also support the individuals working within them.

Jean showed me reports on each of their fleece alpacas. These reports reveal the average micron (diameter of the fibre) and deviation from that average. These numbers measure the quality of each fleece. It was impressive to see the steps they take to produce a high quality product. I was surprised to find the reports interesting. I usually shy away from ‘dry’ numbers!

I left much later than I intended, warmed by many cups of tea and lots of stories. The family with the sick cria had left before me. I heard that the baby was showing good signs of getting better. Jean, David and Abbie the dog waved me goodbye as I left.

Fresh Field Alpacas

A field of alpacas

Chillin’ at Freshfield alpacas

I couldn’t have hoped for a warmer introduction to alpacas than Fresh field alpacas. MaryAnn took me out to see the alpacas first. She knew all their names, and could call over those who were likely to be up for a cuddle.

Meet the alpacas

I got to see up close their gorgeous eyes and little ways they’ll tease each other. It’s pretty easy to see why people with a bit of space might consider an alpaca as a pet. Fresh field offer agistment services for those who don’t have the space to keep their alpaca. A couple were visiting their animals and giving them some treats when I arrived.

Fresh field is an easy hour’s drive from Melbourne. The farm is friendly and set up for family visits. You can feed the alpacas for a small donation. They also have a fairly large shop with a range of different alpaca products.

Fresh field shear their alpacas once a year before the weather gets really hot. MaryAnn contracts a shearer and she said the most they’d done in one day was 86 fleeces!

MaryAnn can wash, dehair and card the fibre on site. Their own fleece goes to different countries depending on the end product. Peru manufactures clothes, New Zealand spins most of the yarn in their store. MaryAnn gets fleece donations from people who’ve bought alpacas from her. She hand spins these or prepares them for felting.

Did I hear you say felting?

Yup! Fresh field has a farm studio and offers felting workshops. While I was there, the teacher was overseeing a more experienced felter. The felter had booked time in the studio to make some nuno felt pieces. In the studio there are large tables and a felting machine with fabrics and dyes on hand. I can see the attraction of working in the studio compared to trying to work at home.

Inspecting fabric in the process of felting

Inspecting the fabric after the first felting

Judy is the teacher. She’s skilful and practical, with a cheeky sense of humour! She also runs classes where you can learn how to create a hat, bag or scarf. I’m planning on coming back for a felt hat workshop. Judy’s examples of felt hats in the store are lovely (sorry, I didn’t think to take a photo – silly me!).

Fibershed fibre: Don’t spit on alpaca

I’ll admit, before starting this project, I thought alpacas were just trendy pets. I’d only ever seen alpaca pairs in small farm fields as I drove past. Perhaps they were a fad, like emu farms. I did know they are useful guards. My uncle lends his alpacas out as protection for lambs. Alpacas help guard goats and chickens as well.

Huacaya alpacas

Huacaya alpacas celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Alpaca industry in Australia, at City Square in Melbourne.

Now that I’ve been to some alpaca farms, I’m much more impressed. Alpacas were first bred by the Andean people in South America up to 6000 years ago. They are part of a family of camelids including llamas.

There are two kinds of alpaca. Huacayas are the cuddly looking kind that we’ve seen most often. The suri looks a little like an afghan hound with its long locks. The Incas prized suri and reserved it for royal clothing only.

Alpacas take a long time to make babies. The average gestation time is 11.5 months! A baby alpaca is called a ‘cria’ and they look as cute as they sound. This is part of the reason alpacas are so expensive: it takes time to get more alpacas!

Suri alpaca

Suri alpaca celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Alpaca industry in Australia, at City Square in Melbourne.

Alpacas have a lower impact on our environment because they have soft foot pads. They tend to eat a little of everything, allowing plants to regrow between nibbles. They’re free of health problems like foot rot, fly strike and Johnes’ disease. They need one or two annual vaccinations. They do sometimes suffer from vitamin D deficiency. The only place they can absorb the sun is their nose.


Alpacas come in 16 natural colours. They can be black, bay black, white, four kinds of grey, three kinds of brown, three kinds of fawn or combinations of those colours. I know that’s not 16 colours, I’m not sure what the others are 😉 Alpacas need to be shorn once a year, this is usually done before summer.

Alpaca fleece selection

The super-technical diagram I drew to help me understand where the choice fleece is for each kind of alpaca

They are usually shorn lying on a table, and it takes between five to 10 minutes for each alpaca. Depending on the quality of the fleece, you can get between 1.5 and 4kg of fleece per animal.

Alpaca fleece is low in lanolin – the oily substance that coats some animal fibres. This means the fleece is hypoallergenic. There’s the added benefit that low lanolin levels need gentler cleaning during processing. I’ve heard that alpaca shearers lubricate their cutters more often because there’s less lanolin!

Alpaca fibre is the same or a little less durable than wool (depending on who you talk to). Each fibre is hollow, which traps air and makes the finished product warm to wear. Alpaca is less elastic, so garments drape well, but may not keep their shape over time. Some people knit at a higher tension to reduce this problem. Its possible to blend alpaca with wool to give more elasticity. Suri fleece twists instead of having an elastic crimp. This is what gives suri the lustrous, slippery qualities that I admire. Alpaca doesn’t pill (yay!), but it does shed.

Examples of different animal fibres

Examples of different animal fibres. from left to right, top to bottom: Huacaya alpaca, Merino sheep, Suri alpaca, Angora goat

It’s also a soft fibre; suri fleece is even softer than huacaya. The fineness of fibres is measured in microns. One micron is one millionth of a metre. Alpaca can measure as low as 15 microns, which puts it in the same realm as superfine merino. More often, alpaca comes in at 27-28 microns, perfect for fashion fabrics.

Creswick woollen mills make socks, jumpers and scarves with alpaca. Rugs sold here are often produced in New Zealand. Coats and other garments are often produced in Peru. They have more expertise and resources for these products than Australia. Alpaca is also used as a quilt filling. 28-36 micron fibre is used in carpet. Amazingly, there is a carpet maker in Victoria making carpets with alpaca fibre!

Sounds pretty amazing. Why wouldn’t you use alpaca all of the time?

…because no product is the answer to everything! Alpaca is a growing industry. It’s made up of many small farms of varying quality and range of colours. It’s hard to get commercial quantities of fleece in a consistent level of quality. Alpaca is currently a niche product, with an expensive price tag.

Where can I see alpacas locally?

Fresh field alpacas – Somerville, Mornington Peninsula.

Pitchingga Ridge alpacas – Red Hill, Mornington Peninsula

Fibershed community: Visiting the Handweavers & Spinners Guild of Victoria

I never knew there was a Handweavers and Spinners Guild in Victoria. I had assumed the little shop front near my home with hand knits displayed in the front window was the local yarn store. Not knowing where to begin with my Fibershed project, I decided to start here and see if they had any advice for me.

What’s inside?

The shop is set up in several different layers – there is the members’ gallery/shop area at the front where pieces made by their members are displayed and available for purchase. Directly behind that is a space available for many of their guild’s gatherings; there was a weaving group working there during my visit.

I was amazed at the range and diversity of groups that the guild supported. They have spinning and weaving groups of course, but also natural dying, tapestry and Japanese braiding. A kind volunteer took the time to introduce me to all of their activities, including their yearly retreat in Harrietville, the much anticipated Textile Bazaar (a rummage sale of second-hand yarns and equipment donated to the guild) and regular classes during the year in installments and held as intensives during summer when country members are more likely to be able to join in.

But wait, there’s more!

Beyond the first couple of visible sections, the shop revealed far more than I’d been able to see from the street: behind a partition on the left, there was a gallery area for temporary exhibitions. At the time I visited it was full of textiles from Bhutan, but I have to go back because the current display is of socks in all different designs.

Along the back wall there was a members library full of books, periodicals, newsletters, videos, DVDs and slides. There was also a doorway to a back room, which I think had sink facilities for the natural dyeing group.

On the right behind another partition, there is a resources shop with some balls of wool like I’m used to, but also spinning tools, dye bottles, resource books and tops. Now, here is where I had to learn something, and the knowledgeable shop manager helped me out. Tops are fleece that has been shorn and trimmed down to the best fibre. They can be bought washed or unwashed, dyed or in natural colours. They’re your starting point for spinning or felting and so naturally the guild’s store was full of a variety of tops!

Talking to those who know

I got confirmation that there are wool growers in Victoria (and the far east of South Australia, within the boundary of my project) whom I could buy tops from. The store manager explained that the wool needs to be scoured (washed) to remove oils, lanolin and dirt. There is only one commercial scourer in Victoria (it seems like wool mills might have their own though?) and you need to have a licence to scour wool because it can be quite a polluting process. I’ll also then need to get my top carded (brushed).

The guild members I spoke to suggested I look into felting, otherwise I’ll need to get the fibre spun into yarn for weaving or knitting/crochet. It’s food for thought, and I have very little experience in knitting and weaving, and none at all in felting or spinning so perhaps I can work with some guild members on this project.

Setting up a Fibershed for Melbourne, Australia

I find buying sustainable clothes really hard.

I used to worry only about the ethics of how they were manufactured. I’m really glad it’s now easier to find fair-trade or ethically made clothes, but I still wonder about how the fabrics are made. There’s not enough information about how sustainably the fibre is grown, whether the people who manufacture it are treated ethically and what the environmental impacts of the fabric processing and dyeing are. So far my solution has been to buy only second-hand via thrift stores and clothing swaps. It suits me pretty well to gather what I need from the cast offs of others, but there are always a few items that are hard to find (a pair of good fitting dress pants are worth their weight in gold!). I could make my own, but I don’t have good sources for pre-loved fabric and yarns. Setting up a Fibershed could be a good way to deal with my problem.

What is Fibershed?

Fibershed started with one woman in California creating a wardrobe for herself using only dyes, fibers and labour sourced within 150 miles of where she lived. She teamed up with farmers and artisans to build the wardrobe and this is where I get really excited – the project is all about discovering who grows the resources in your area, and connecting them up with the people who create things with those resources. Others are obviously excited by this idea too – there are now at least 15 similar projects all over the world.

That sounds like a really hard thing to do

I agree! I had setting up a Fibershed on my ‘things to do one day’ list until I read this post by a blogger who is setting up her Fibershed in Perth, Australia. She was calling on others take up the challenge and one person from my hometown of Melbourne had put her hand up. All of a sudden, this seemed like a crazy, but vaguely possible project to take on.

How am I going to do this?

Apart from sheer grit and determination? I’m going to keep to Nicki’s ground rules:

Map of my Melbourne Fibershed region

My Melbourne Fibershed region

  • the fibre must be farmed and processed within 500km of Melbourne, Victoria (this map tool is a great way to visualise the area I have to work with)
  • all fibres must be natural
  • any dyeing must also use local non synthetic materials
  • all fabric and clothing made must be of quality construction so as to ensure the life of the clothing is long, and not need excessive ironing or washing.

Given I’ve never made a garment for myself, let alone a whole outfit, I’m not going to get too hung up on what (if anything!) I’m able to make by April 2016. What I’m really interested in is getting to know my local:

  • Growers
  • Processors
  • Manufacturers
  • Creators

I don’t know much, but I do know that Australia was built on ‘the sheep’s back’ and at the very least I should be able to knit an item of local wool. I also know that Victoria has a long and proud manufacturing industry, as well as a strong fashion culture. I’m interested to see what leads I can follow there. Wish me luck!

Source: Setting up a Fibershed for Melbourne, Australia