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


Velieris

Tucked away in an industrial pocket of Braybrook, Velieris manufacture beautiful carpets and rugs. I visited because they offer scouring as a service to other textile businesses.

Fibre first

Rocco, the production manager showed me around on the day. We started in the scouring room, which was piled high with bales of fibre. Velieris buys wool and alpaca fibre from co-ops who gather local fibre in a central location. The fibre is sorted for quality, length and colour at the co-op, then delivered to Melbourne. Velieris also buys fibre from Peru and NZ to make up the quantities they need.

Scoured fibre

Scoured fibre

The company scours for doona and pillow manufacturers, local processers and UK spinning mills. Velieris accept orders between 1000-50kg, which makes their service accessible to smaller players.

Clean it up

Bubbles!

Bubbles!

Velieris use an eco soap in their scouring bowls. The first four bowls have soap; their water is steam heated. Effluent from scouring goes through their water treatment plant to remove the soap. Some chemicals are used at this stage. They also need to cool the water down before it is released. Their sludge, all the dirt removed in scouring, goes into landfill.

Water treatment

Water treatment

At this stage, if the fibre has been processed for an external company, Rocco bales the scoured fibres up and sends them off. All the carpet fibre moves to the next stage of mixing, carding and combing.

Mix it up

Velieris specialise in luxury naturally coloured products. They use a weighing machine to mix colour ‘recipes’. Eliminating the dying process reduces water usage and retains the softness of the wool and alpaca fibres Velieris use.

Weighing machine (green, on left) and carder (grey box on right)

Weighing machine (green, on left) and carder (grey box on right)

There’s no need for dehairing, because this fibre is destined for carpet. The fibres are sucked into a huge carding machine, then transfered to combers. Melbourne’s manufacturing history feels very close when you’re standing next to these old, but still powerful machines.

Combing machines

Combing machines

The combed fibres are gilled twice to even them out before spinning. I loved watching the fibre snake up into the gilling machine!

The resulting slivers are then spun and plyed into carpet yarn. The yarn is tufted before heading to the loom to be woven into carpet. Velieris do moth proof their carpets, but they are happy to skip this step at the customer’s request.

Weaving it together

Carpet maker

Carpet loom

The carpet loom is a thing of wonder. I couldn’t capture it all in a photo, so I’ll try to describe it. You have the loom up one end of the factory of course, but what you see is more like a yarn blood system. Leading into the loom are about 10 metal frames. Each frame holds about 10 cones of yarn. Each cone of yarn is strung through the frame, to the loom to make the warp. The whole system takes up about 15 square metres. It’s impressive.

Once woven, the carpet gets checked over by hand for any blemishes like loose threads. It’s trimmed to create a neat consistent top, then sent off for backing. Velieris makes the carpet entirely at their Braybrook workshop, except for the latex backing. This is done by an external specialist in Melbourne because it’s cheaper.

Checking for blemishes

Checking for blemishes

Side line

There was one row of spinning machines that weren’t running when I visited. These machines were bought in error – they are fine yarn spinners. Rocco’s been experimenting with them to get a good product to attract a buyer with. He can get a 270 tex yarn. He’s met a group interested in returning fine yarn spinning to Melbourne, but they don’t yet have the skills to use the machinery. Will we see fine yarns in this Fibreshed again one day?

Carpet and fine yarn samples from Velieris

Carpet and fine yarn samples from Velieris


Victorian Wool Processors

I didn’t expect to be visiting a wool scourer. There’s a view in crafting circles of Australia that wool scouring has left Australia. It turns out that scouring does still exist. Victoria Wool Processors was as interested in having me visit, as I was in visiting them.

Getting started

David, the managing director of Victoria Wool Processors (VWP) showed me around the factory. He was open about the environmental challenges of scouring, and passionate about the potential of wool as a natural material.

Raw wool bales on a conveyer to be broken up

Raw wool bales on a conveyer to be broken up

VWP purchases wool directly from Australian farmers, to meet orders from overseas mills. The raw wool arrives compressed in bales and is broken up before scouring.

Scouring

VWP use one million litres of potable water a day as well as 100,000 litres of bore water. That’s down from 1.3 million litres of potable water during Melbourne’s last drought. David is working to use less potable water. The alternative is bore water, which needs desalination.

​The raw wool drops into the first scouring bowl, a dark mix of greasy wool, detergent and dirty water. David surprised me by explaining that at this stage, dirty water is better for cleaning the wool! The wool is agitated and moved around by metal forks. It then passes through rollers to press out the water, grease and dirt. The wool drops into a new scouring bowl to start the process again. In total, there are seven scouring bowls in VWP’s system.

David explained that fresh water enters the system at the last, cleanest bowl. It travels down the system by gravity; each bowl’s height is lower than the previous bowl. Eventually it reaches the first, dirtiest scouring bowl. Here the water is drawn off to separate out the dirt and grease. That water is then recycled back into the dirtiest scouring bowl.

Wool grease

Wool grease

The separated wool grease is packed up for export to make into lanolin. Lanolin is used for personal care products,  lubricants and even vitamin D suppliments for livestock. It’s a useful ingredient, and contributes to 50% of VWP’s income.

Solid waste collected for fertiliser

Solid waste collected for fertiliser

The remaining solid waste is collected in huge piles at the back of VWP’s property and composted. After 6 months the grass seeds in the mix have died off and its likely to be a useful farm fertiliser.

Scouring gives a 52% yield, which means that around 48% of raw wool is actually grease, sweat and muck. Wow. The scouring process removes most, but not all vegetable matter. Depending on the end use, vegetable matter is spun off during top making, or VWP removes it by carbonising the fibre.​ 95% of VWP wool is scoured for bedding products, the remaining 5% is carbonised for fashion fibres.

Carbonising

During carbonising, the fibre drops into a sulphuric acid and water bath, then neutralised in an alkaline bath. This process repeats two more times; the acid dries the seed. The next stage heats the fibre up to 110 degrees celcius, which dries the seed further. Finally, the fibre drops into a line of crushers, which reduce the seed to a dust that is removed.

acid bath and crushing machine

An acid bath (left), and crushing machine used during the carbonisation process

The acid bath is recycled for two weeks. Only the water in the bath needs topping up because it evaporates over this time. The acid and alkaline baths are combined to neutralise them before disposal. The seed dust from the crushers is pure carbon, so that is added to the solid waste to aid composting. The workers in this section wore face masks because the air is dusty.

I asked David why the extra effort of carbonising is worth it. He explained that it softens the fibres, which is useful with fashion products. The process is also very good at removing vegetable matter. This is a particular issue for Australia, because of the sticky burrs we have in the paddocks.

Last steps

Whether it is just scoured, or carbonised as well, the wool is bleached with hydrogen peroxide.

Drying tube

Drying tube

The drying machine contains huge perforated barrels. The wool drops on the outside of the first barrel and air sucks from within. This spreads the wool flat across the surface of the barrel and dries it. As the barrel rotates, the wool passes to the next barrel, moving the fibres around so it dries evenly.

Dried wool

Dried wool

The dry wool is then sucked up into a pipe that runs along the ceiling of the factory. This gets it to over to the baling machine in another part of the factory. It’s quite Willy Wonka-esque!

Walking over to this section of the factory felt like Christmas. The dried wool dropped from the ceiling pipe into one of several huge piles on the ground. It was gorgeous. The wool is quality checked one last time before being passed to the baling machine.

The bales are so heavy, David has strict safety rules for how they should be handled.

Baled wool

Baled wool

The business of scouring

Victoria Wool Processors scour 3% of Australia’s total wool clip. The company employs 17 people. Its activities generate the same level of waste as 80,000 people (per year?). Labour and waste disposal are David’s two major costs of business.

Currently most VWP product sells directly to mills in South East Asia and China. Their production calendar is organised around the Northern hemisphere buying cycle. David would like to expand sales to Europe, a market that demands solid eco credentials.​ It’s a good time to do this. At current exchange rates, the cost of scouring in Australia is competitive with China.

AWP's Central control and monitoring system

VWP’s Central control and monitoring system

​It was fascinating to see VWP’s machinery in action. I felt welcomed by the staff, who were curious about my visit. They clearly had a comfortable relationship with their boss. I can see that David is motivated by environmental as well as commercial concerns. It’s interesting to see the solutions he’s come up with so far.


Feeling Sheepish About Wool

The title isn’t just a pithy phrase, I am feeling sheepish about sheep! As an Australian I’ve absorbed so much knowledge about sheep and wool. Australia’s history, sheep farming and wool are closely tied. My own family’s history is part of this story. Yet at the same time, I don’t know much about this topic at all! This post records what I’ve learnt so far. I’m quite sure there’s aspects I have left out, there may be some parts that are wrong. I’ll keep updating it as I learn more.

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.

Baa baa black sheep

Like lots of other good things, sheep probably originated from Mesopotamia. Originally they were domesticated for their meat and milk. We can thank the Persians for breeding them for wool production.

Merino is shorthand for ‘sheep’ in Australia. We’re famous for the quantity and quality of Merino wool we produce. So much so, that I’d never really considered that there might be other kinds of sheep! I’ve since discovered the following breeds are farmed local to me:

Talking to farmers, I discovered that they farm different breeds for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, they pick a breed that suits their environment. Poorly suited sheep get sick, which is bad for the sheep and the farmer. The reason why Merino is such a popular sheep in Australia? It copes well with our dry conditions. Victoria is wetter than the Australian average, so other breeds can be better suited to each farm’s microclimate. Some breeds are better for wool, others for meat, and a lot of the breeds listed above are suited to both purposes.

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.

Environmental impact

As ruminant animals, sheep produce methane, which is a greenhouse gas. Alpacas produce methane too, but to a lesser degree. An industry funded lifecycle review doesn’t provide clear answers on other environmental questions. Where I live the rainfall is higher than most of Australia, and farms keep a low density of livestock. Because of that, the report suggests that water usage and erosion may not be big issues on the farm.

Producing wool uses less energy than alternative synthetic fibres. Water and energy use are still significant issues during processing and dying. Scouring wool can use chemicals that interfere with natural endocrine systems. Treatments against moths and beetles don’t sound awesome either. It’s important to note that a lot of wool’s water use comes from consumers washing their own garments.

Let’s talk about mulesing.

No, this has nothing to do with donkey-horse offspring. Mulesing is a process undertaken to prevent flystrike, but it’s not very nice itself.

Flystrike is one of the most common problems sheep suffer in Australia. Flys lay their eggs on the dirty wool near a sheep’s tail. When the eggs hatch, the maggots eat the closest meat they can find. Gross. Unfortunately for the sheep, mulesing prevents flystrike by cutting a crescent of skin below the tail off. This has been happening in Australia since the 1930s without anaesthetic, which has a lot of people upset. No doubt the sheep aren’t happy about it either. The practice is being phased out, but its replacement requires clamping the under-tail skin tightly until the connective tissue dyes and the excess falls off. I don’t know that I’m much happier about that solution either.

Getting to know some Dohne Merinos at the Bendigo wool fair

Getting to know some Poll Merinos at the Bendigo wool fair

Perhaps this is enough to put you off wool, and it was for me too until I talked to farmers of other sheep breeds. Mulesing is performed on Merino sheep because they have lots of rolling skin. All that skin means more wool, but also makes Merinos susceptible to fly strike. Other breeds don’t have the same issues and some naturally are bare-breeched, so they don’t suffer fly strike at all.

I was lax when I visited the farmers listed below and forgot to ask them about other steps they took to keep their sheep healthy. Sheep suffer from lice and worms, so I assume they undergo a similar vaccination schedule to alpacas. I’ll update this section once I’ve got more information.

Inspecting fleece

Inspecting a Dohne Merino fleece

Fleece

Sheep have been bred to be white for easier dying. Their ancestors were brown, and boutique flocks often run coloured sheep because they’re popular with handweavers, spinners and knitters. It’s possible therefore to get wool in white, cream, fawn, browns and shades of grey through to black. True black is rare; more often it’s a very dark brown. What colours you get depend on the breed and the individual animal.

Fleece weight is dependant on breed, averaging around 4-6kg. Wool is naturally coated with grease, which water-proofs the sheep and reduces moth attack. Pretty much all the wool we wear has been scoured to remove the grease, which can be processed into lanolin. Dust and mites can get trapped in its fibres, so wool isn’t always suitable for people with allergies.

Wool is very durable. Wool is a fine fibre, usually ranging from 22-34 microns. Super fine Merino can measure less than 15 microns! Each fibre has little burs along its length, which is what makes wool scratchy to touch (finer wools are less scratchy). Fibre length ranges from 5-13cm. Wool for handspinning aims to be long because it’s easier to spin; longer fibres also make stronger yarn. Some breeds have a wool with lustre, particularly if the end product is intended for crafters.

Wool has a lot of crimp, which insulates by trapping air. The crimp also makes the fibre elastic, which gives garments good shape ‘memory’ and resilience. Wool keeps you dry by soaking up water. Its insulating properties mean wool gets warmer when its a little wet! Wool has a lovely drape, but it does pill during use. Wool is a relatively inexpensive fibre.

a hand dyed knitted vest

a hand dyed knitted vest

Wool is made into so many things, it’s hard to keep track. It’s woven and knitted into fabrics for fashion and home wear. Its used as building insulation and made into carpets, mulch pads and mattress stuffing. In Australia, most home wool production goes towards bedding products like doonas and mattress covers. Our fashion-quality wool is exported to mills in Asia and Europe.

Where to see wool locally

Granite Haven – Marraweeney, Strathbogie ranges

Tarndwarncoort – Warncoort, Western district

Yarn Providers

Header Photo: Paige Green


Cotton

“Doesn’t cotton use a lot of water?”

When I told friends I was visiting a local cotton farm, I was consistently asked this question. Environmental messaging about cotton has pervaded the community consciousness. I was curious to find out how concerned I should be about this information. This is my first attempt at the topic. As always, it is limited by what access to data sources I have, and my skill set in understanding it.

Cotton history

The original source of cotton could have been East Africa and the Americas. What does seem certain is we’ve been using cotton for a long time. 5000+ year old cotton fabric has been found in Egypt, the Indus Valley (modern day Pakistan) and Mexico. Knowledge of cotton spread along with some of the key stories from our history books. Alexander the Great’s troops switched from woollen tunics to cotton when they invaded India. Muslims in Spain introduced cotton to Europe in the 8th century. Cotton became a valued import from India until the 18th century. Then the industrial revolution in the UK shifted production to Europe. There were poor work conditions in British mills and slavery in North American fields.

Cotton is a relative of the hibiscus plant. Most cotton grown today are Americas varietals, particularly Gossypium hirsutum; upland cotton. Pima and Egyptian cotton fibres come from a South American variety, Gossypium barbadense. It has fine, soft, long-staple fibers but is harder to grow.

Native Australian 'cotton'

Native Australian ‘cotton’ Kapok/Goonjan/Wanggu (Cochlospermum fraseri) in the Northern Territory. The fruits split to release numerous seeds on silky parachutes of a cotton-like fibre.

Cotton in Australia

In Australia, cotton came out with the first fleet. There are some native ‘cottons’, but they are not grown commercially. It puttered along as a minor crop in Queensland from the 1850s. This was unirrigated, marginal yield and poor quality. There are hints of an ugly story here too. Over 60,000 South Pacific Islanders were brought to develop the cotton and sugarcane crops. Was blackbirding involved?

The modern, irrigated crop we know was an innovation of the 1960s. Cotton was the first genetically modified (GM) crop to be grown in Australia in 1996. Today 98% of the Australian cotton crop is GM. CSIRO partners with Monsanto to breed cotton varieties suited to different regions in Australia. One of those varieties is Bollguard II. It contains two genes from the soil bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Those genes produce proteins in the cotton leaves, killing caterpillars of cotton’s biggest pest. Because of this, Australian cotton has the highest yields in the world. I have been unable to locate any organic cotton growers in Australia. It would appear that growing organic in Australia is commercially unfeasible.

The cotton growing season in Australia falls between September and April. Victoria’s season is shorter and finishes in late April or early May. The plant grows to about 1 metre tall. Lovely cream and crimson pink flowers give way to bolls. The bolls split to reveal cotton fibre inside.

Cotton bolls at different stages of opening

Cotton bolls at different stages of opening

During the growing season, fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides are applied to the crop. Once the cotton bolls open, defoliant is used before harvesting. This list breaks down the actions at each stage in more detail. This video shows the different stages (and machinery used) for cotton growing. It focuses on New South Wales, so some of the techniques are different to Victoria. Australian farms average 10 bales of cotton per hectare planted. Each bale contains 2,500kg of cotton lint, seed and vegetable matter.

Cotton’s environmental impact

Yes. Cotton uses a lot of water. About 7 megalitres per hectare; which grows at least 10 bales of cotton in Australia. A farmer told me that 40% of a bale is lint (cotton fibre), so that gives us about 10,000kg of cotton per hectare. Australia’s crop is considered the most water efficient in the world. So if water efficiency is important to you, Australian cotton is worth considering.

But should we be growing cotton in the first place? Cotton is a large water user when compared to other clothing fibres. So cotton as a clothing fibre doesn’t rate well for water concious consumers. But when compared to other crops grown where cotton is farmed? The story changes. Cotton uses less water than lucerne and tomatoes: popular crops in Victoria’s irrigated areas. Cotton is also a lucrative crop. From a farming perspective then, cotton makes the most out of available water allocations.

Speaking of irrigation, I wondered about the environmental impact of having an irrigation system. I spoke to Juliet Le Feuvre from Environment Victoria. I asked her if it’s possible to irrigate in an environmentally responsible way. She thinks it is, although we’re struggling to balance the competing needs well. She pointed me to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan for information on our current approach.

Lake Boga at sunset

Lake Boga at sunset, part of the Victorian Mid-Murray Storages.

Chemicals on cotton involve insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and defoliants. I’ll refer to these generally as pesticides. Insecticides are applied to stop insects destroying crop plants. Australia’s use of GM cotton varieties has reduced insecticide use by 85%. In 2010-11, that meant 0.54 kg of insecticide active constituent per hectare. Fungicides kill or prevent the growth of fungi and their spores. The only fungicides registered for use on cotton in Australia are for seed treatments.

Herbicides kill unwanted plants. Of all the herbicides used on cotton, more than 80% is glyphosate (Roundup). In 2013, herbicide useage was just under 3kg of active ingredient per hectare. Seven glyphosate resistant weed species occur widely in cotton farming systems. It’s interesting to note that irrigated systems provide higher weed control than dryland systems. Defoliants cause plant leaves to die back and drop off. This reduces the leaf and vegetable matter in the cotton when harvested. Defoliants could use chemicals that also have insecticide or herbicide qualities. Defoliation makes processing easier and maintains the quality of the fibre.

There are several concerns about chemicals:

  • negative effects on beneficial insects
  • weed resistance to herbicides
  • chemical run off and spray drift (when pesticides move away from their intended target).

Beneficial insects are being better supported by Integrated Pest Management Systems. This uses a broad range of strategies to control problem pests including targeted insecticides. Integrated Weed Management is helping control weed resistance. The cotton industry has significantly reduced the impact of pesticides on the environment. Tools like MyBMP will help the industry to keep doing so. But pesticides do continue to have an impact on waterways and vegetation.

Kilter Rural's cotton field

Defoliated cotton ready for harvest

Cotton on

Cotton is hard wearing and durable, but soft on the skin and hypoallergenic. It’s spun as a combed or mercerised yarn. Combed cotton is brushed, matte and low-twist. Mercerised cotton is treated with sodium hydroxide for a shiny finish and high twist. The fibre provides little insulation, high breathability and absorbs water. This is why its such a comfortable fabric in warm weather.

Most cotton is white; it can have shades of yellow depending on the variety grown. There are also coloured varieties of cotton in red, green and brown! Cotton fibres vary in length from 1 to 6.5 cm, with a diameter of 11-22 microns. Cotton fabric has good drape and high pilling resistance. The smoothness of the fibre defines stitches, good for showing off fancy stitch work. Mercerised cotton has superb colour retention.

Cotton is inexpensive, and can be washed and dried on regular machine cycles. It can help to lie the garment flat to dry, to avoid stretching it out of shape.

Cotton conundrums

Some high twist cottons, particularly mercerised ones, can knit on an angle. Cotton yarn is prone to splitting during knitting. Cotton’s good stitch definition shows up all your mistakes. That’s a concern for inexperienced knitters like myself!

Cotton fabric is inelastic, so it is prone to stretching and sagging. Blended yarns improve this tendency. Cottons dyed in dark colours tend to bleed. Adding vinegar to washes reduces colour running. The colours tend to fade in brushed cottons, they can also be prone to pilling. Be careful around flames, because cotton is highly flammable.

There is no easily sourced organic cotton available in Australia.

Where to see cotton locally

Kilter Rural – Lake Boga, Mallee region


Kilter Rural

I never expected to find cotton in Victoria. And yet there it was, a news article about the first cotton farm in the state for over 30 years. It is a single crop, but it has been successful. Farmers in the area are paying attention. The cotton is being grown by Kilter Rural, a specialist agricultural asset manager. In other words, investors buy the land, Kilter run the farm. I got in contact with Michael Neville, manager of agriculture at Kilter Rural to find out more. Michael brought me up to speed, revealing facts and statistics so quickly I could barely keep up with my notes.

Kilter are growing Bollgard II cotton, which is genetically modified (it’s the 71BRF variety). The plant is grown to hip height, then prompted to flower. A boll develops from each flower. Within the boll is the burr, which is the cotton fibre and seed. The plants are defoliated before picking so that the harvested cotton contains much less twigs and leaves. The cotton is harvested once the bolls have fully opened.

The harvested cotton is rolled into bales that weigh 2,500kg each. They’re so heavy a B-double truck can fit only 13 bales. Michael told me that Kilter need a 10 bale to the hectare harvest to break even. That’s a lot of cotton. The bales are driven to a cotton gin run by Auscott in Hay, NSW for the next stage of processing. Currently all ginned Australian cotton is sent overseas for spinning. There are no suitable yarn mills in Australia. Michael has some plans on how to change that, but they’re still in the beginning stages so we won’t see the results for a long time yet.

Kilter Rural's cotton field

Kilter Rural’s cotton field

The cotton is irrigated with a subsurface drip. 2016 was the third year that Kilter have grown cotton in Victoria. Their water usage over the three years tells the story of how they’re tweaking what they do. They used 10 mega litres of water per hectare in 2014, and reduced that by one mega litre in 2015. In 2016 they got it down again to 7 or 8 megalitres. The national average is 7.8 mega litres per hectare. Kilter Rural have been able to significantly reduce their insecticide use because of the variety of cotton they’re growing. The biggest change this variety of cotton brings is a significant reduction in insecticide use. The range of herbicides needed has also dropped.

Michael was happy for me to visit the farm, so we drove all the way up to Winlaton, near Swan Hill. Ron Opie, the farm manager showed us around. We arrived a few days before harvest. I’ve seen photos of cotton fields before, but seeing the real thing was different. The cotton was super white and practically falling out of its casing cotton. The plants were shorter, and there was more cotton per plant than I imagined. Kilter Rural grew 240 hectares of cotton this year, and aim to get to 500 hectares eventually.

Ron took us to the edge of the field, where some plants had germinated outside of the irrigation lines. Their growth had been slower, so he could show us a boll in the stages between closed and fully open. If the bolls are slow to open in the field, they use a horizontal bar to tap the cotton buds. This rap is enough to prompt them to release their fruit. At harvest time, a tractor will work 7 furrows at a time. It’s hooked up to GPS so the irrigation lines are unaffected.

Cotton bolls at different stages of opening

Cotton bolls at different stages of opening

Cotton doesn’t give Ron many problems, in fact his biggest issue is the irrigation lines. A worm likes to chew through the plastic tubes. Ron’s team have to plug the holes quickly to stop water loss! Kilter Rural rotate crops. There were corn husks on the ground from the previous crop when we visited. They have found that tomatoes grow well after a cotton crop. Ron explained how just before sowing, he’ll allow weeds to germinate. These are then turned into the soil, which gives the crop an advantage on weedy competition.

Kilter Rural participate in the Better Cotton Initiative. They value sustainability in their business and manage over 70 habitat hectares of remnant vegetation in the Victorian Riverina and Murray Fans bioregions. This covers grasslands, woodlands and scattered large old trees. Kilter Rural have also been involved in composting and carbon farming research projects.

This is the longest journey I’ve made visit a farm for this Fibreshed project, but it was well worth the trip. Plant farmers seem to be a different breed to animal farmers, much more laconic and business-like. It was great to meet face-to-face and better understand the work that’s occurring here.

Cotton plant in field, ready to harvest

Cotton, ready for harvest


Linen

Linen to me is teatowels and 1980s dresses and suits. It’s so synonymous with domestic fabric that we call our storage space for it a ‘linen closet’.

Pick-up binder in flax at Drouin

Pick-up binder in flax at Drouin, Victoria. Machine from Drouin flax mills: Feb 1945 Source: Museum Victoria

Linen’s lineage

Linen comes from the inner fibres of flax plants. It is the strongest of all plant fibres. Like sheep, linen was first domesticated in Mesopotamia. The oldest known piece of clothing is made of linen. We’ve been using this fibre for so long, it’s embedded itself deep into the English language. Line, lingerie, lining all have historical roots in linen.

What I’ve discovered is that Victoria has a special history with linen. In WWII, the British lost access to their normal sources of flax in Russia, Belgium and Ireland. Flax was used in coats and parachute harnesses, ropes, tarpaulins and glider covers. All important things for the war effort. The Brits told Australians to step up and gave Australia a quota. By 1942 that quota was 32,000 acres. Victoria’s share of that quota was 28,000 acres (a big jump from the 2,000 acres grown in 1930). Farms in places like Hamilton, Colac, Berwick and Drouin contributed flax. There were 10 mills and six deseeding depots at places like Drouin, Lake Bolac and Myrtleford. The Australian Women’s Land Army helped grow and harvest the crop. Sheep helped too, eating weeds in flax fields.

Land girls hand spreading flax for retting.

Land girls hand spreading flax for retting. Source: Museum Victoria

Farming flax

There are at least two varieties of flax plant: one grown for seed, the other for fibre. The varieties are specialised because growing for seeds reduces the fibre quality that is harvested. A 1.5 x 5m patch of flax will yield about 350gm of fibre.

Flax harvesting is a labour intensive process with amazing terminology. The entire plant is pulled up, or cut close to ground to maintain the length of the fibre. Plants are dried, then retted with water, dew, or chemicals (an alkali or oxalic acid) to loosen the outer stalk. Scutching removes the stalks. Tow is a byproduct of scutching, which can be used as upholstery stuffing. Heckling then combs the fibres ready for spinning. Flax can also be processed faster by ‘cottonising’, which uses cotton machinery. The resulting linen looses its characteristic look.

There is an environmental impact to flax. Growing it can involve pesticides, because flax won’t grow well with weedy company. The production of linen can include chemicals.

Land Army girls employed at the Drouin flax mill, Drouin, Victoria

Land Army girls employed at the Drouin flax mill, Drouin, Victoria. Source: National Library of Australia

Linen is like…

Light weight and cool, linen is also soft against the skin. It can be machine washed, dried and take hot temperatures. Linen has only moderate initial shrinkage. It improves with washing and age.

The natural colours of linen range from creamy beiges to light blue-greys. (Remember the girl with the flaxen hair?) It is not naturally white, this comes from bleaching.  The finest linen fibres are smooth with high lustre; lower grades can be wrinkly and slubby. Linen doesn’t take colour as well as cotton, but its lustre boosts the dye that does take.

Linen fibres measure around 25-150mm in length so it doesn’t pill. The fibre averages 12-15 microns. Linen wrinkles easily. If it is creased regularly along the same fold, the fibre will weaken in that area. Linen has no crimp which gives it a lovely drape that doesn’t sag. It breathes well and conducts heat away from the body. Linen absorbs and then looses moisture quickly, so it doesn’t tend to feel clammy when wet. It is anti-static and hypoallergenic. Linen is damaged by perspiration and bleach. It is resistent to moths, carpet beetles, dirt and stains. I’ve seen conflicting claims of mould-resistance and susceptibility to damage from mould.

Land Army girl winnowing flax at the Drouin flax mill, Drouin, Victoria

Land Army girl winnowing flax at the Drouin flax mill, Drouin, Victoria. Source: National Library of Australia

Linen letdowns

Linen is an expensive fibre, so it is often blended with other fibres to lower its price. It’s not a warm yarn, but it can be blended with wool or alpaca to make it suitable for inter-season garments.

The biggest downside for our local Fibreshed is that I cannot find anyone growing this fibre commercially. I have learnt that Stoney Creek Oil do grow the fibre variety of flax. They grow for seed, so it isn’t suitable for clothing.

Where to see flax locally

Stoney Creek Oil – Goldfields (n.b. their flax plants are grown for seed, not fibre)


Carding, Combing and Spinning

It’s been hard to twist my head around how scoured fibres are transformed into yarn (pun intended). I knew little at the start of this Fibreshed project. Everyone seemed to have slightly different definitions of the same terms, which confused me further. In retrospect, I think each person I met taught me different parts of the process. I couldn’t see the big picture. It’s not until I came to write this post that it started to come together. Please forgive me if I’m wrong on some points and point me in the right direction please!

What’s in a name?

It’s a bit backwards, but I found spinning easier to understand when I sorted out which yarn type was which:

Woollen – this isn’t just fibre from a sheep, but also a style of yarn spinning. Woollen yarns are warm, airy and soft. They often have a fuzzy appearance. While they’re not hard wearing, they’re perfect for scarves, hats, sweaters and felted knits. Their short fibres align in different directions, making air pockets that insulate.

Worsted – a smooth yarn that is hard wearing and drapes well. The tightly twisted fibres of worsted yarns often have a sheen. They’re used for suits, socks and sportswear. Their long fibres all face the same direction, making them very strong.

Wool skeins

Worsted wool skeins in the Tarndwarncoort wool shop

Simple, right? Until you realise that there’s a subset of yarns, known as semi-worsted. This is the yarn that slunk silently in my spinning conversations, waiting for me to discover its meaning! This is yarn that has been prepared with in a woollen style, but spun with a worsted method. It combines qualities of both yarn types. There’s also a semi-woollen which is worsted processed but woollen spun. This seems to be less common.

n.b. when getting this article proof read by actual spinners, I discovered that the definitions of semi-worsted and semi-woollen are different depending on which spinner you ask. I’ve gone with the definition used by a grower and processor in my local Fibreshed.

Alpaca yarn

Semi-worsted yarns from Wool 2 Yarn

Step by step

So now we’ve sorted out where we’re heading, let’s go back to the beginning. After scouring, fibre may be carded, combed and spun. Which of these steps are taken depends on whether you want to felt, knit or weave with the fibre.

Plant fibres like cotton and hemp have a similar but slightly different process to what I outline below. There is equipment to do this with the Melbourne Fibreshed, but I haven’t been able to see these in action yet. I’ll update this post when I know more.

flow diagram of the carding, combing and spinning process

The carding, combing and spinning process

Some processers add water and/or anti-static before starting. The water relaxes the fibre and reduces dust. The anti-static goes a step further to reduce the build up of static during the process, which can break the fibres.

Dehairing – Alpaca, goat mohair and cashmere all have long scratchy fibres mixed in with the softer fibres we prefer to use for clothing. They can be removed by hand, but most people use dehairing machines instead. Unfortunately this ends up as a waste product in the process, because the result is usually mixed with grass seeds. If you can think of a use for it, there’s a lot of fibre processors who’d like to hear your ideas.

The dehairing machine

A dehairing machine: the bin at the front holds the smooth fibre that comes out at the end of the process

Mixing – if the yarn is made from a blend of different fibres, it’s often mixed at this stage. Mills work to ‘recipes’ where fibres are measured by weight, then spread out on top of each other in layers. Chunks of this mix are separated out for processing, helping to keep the ratio mix consistent. With hand processing, staples of fibre are spread out in even layers on a hand or drum carder.

Carding – fibres are often a bit clumped after scouring, so this step opens the fibres up. Carding also removes a little bit of vegetable matter. This is where the process begins to split according to what you’re aiming for. There are woollen carders and worsted carders. The slivers that come off the woollen cards are ready for spinning. Worsted cards begin to align the fibres a little bit before moving on to gilling. 

Carding machines look super cool, with their rotating drums with wires at different lengths. This part of the process seems to be proprietary, so I can’t show you any photos of a carding machine in action. Luckily, hard carders are less shy of paparazzi.

Gilling – carding shakes things up a bit, so the fibre is usually gilled several times. Gilling machines ensure the worsted sliver is a uniform weight throughout. They also further align the fibres.

Gilling machines are the swans of the process – they take the slivers up gracefully. All the work happens where you can’t see it inside the machine, so it looks like magic.

Combing – this is the slowest part. Combing straightens out the fibres, and removes the shortest ones (the waste from this process is fed back into the woollen process, which uses short fibres). After combing, all the fibres are well aligned with each other, and more vegetable matter has been removed. It’s gilled one last time, then passed to felters or spinners as a finished top.

Exiting the combing machine

Fibres exiting the combing machine

Spinning – The woollen sliver or worsted top is condensed into thin roving. This is drawn out and twisted to create a single ply of yarn. To hand spin woollen yarn, the roving is rolled into rolags. It’s then drawn out and spun using a longdraw drafting technique. To hand spin worsted yarn, the roving is drawn out and spun using a short drafting movement. A man’s jumper requires about 1kg of roving. I’ve been told that this would take most hand spinners about 6 days to spin.

A single ply yarn can be used as is, but it is often plyed to increase its strength and stop it twisting in on itself. Spinning creates tension in the fibres, so the yarn is steamed or rested to release that energy.

The state of the industry

The majority of large mills in the Melbourne fibreshed don’t produce local yarn anymore. There are several mini mills that produce semi-worsted yarns for hand knitting and crochet.

Weaving requires a thinner yarn. Waverley Woollen Mills in Launceston produces woven products from carded fleece, spinning fine yarn in the process. The only processors spinning fine yarn in Australia that I know of are Paddock to Ply in Queensland and Certton in Sydney. 

Where does spinning happen in Melbourne?

Cashmere connections, Western district

Fibre Naturally, Dandenong ranges

Velieris, Melbourne

Wool 2 Yarn, Mornington Peninsula

Great Ocean Road Mill, Warnambool

 

Boston Fine Fibres, Queanbeyan

Echo Beach, Mount Barker

Bendigo Woollen Mills, Bendigo

Australian Country Spinners, Wangaratta

Creswick Woollen Mills

First Edition Fibre and Yarns, Euroa

Goldfeilds Mohair Farm, Bookham


Washing and Scouring

At its most basic, scouring is a way of cleaning textile fibres. Wool that’s been shorn from a sheep is known as greasy, or raw wool. Just under 50% of raw wool isn’t actually wool at all: it’s grease, dirt, sweat (suint), burrs and seeds. Many other animal fibres also get washed: alpaca, goat hair and silk all get some level of cleaning. Angora rabbit is apparently an exception. Plant fibres have different processes, although decortated hemp does have a degumming stage.

So many ways to clean fibre!

Raw fibre often contains burrs that can scratch, and may contain disease that can transfer to humans, so it should be treated with caution. Cleaning removes the danger of disease and some burrs. There are many different traditions and ways to wash and scour a fibre. In this context, washing aims to remove large particles and sweat. Scouring uses heat to remove the oils from the fibre. Some people choose not to scour their fibre, because the oils can help the spinning process. Greasy wool is also more water resistant. Wool grease can develop a distinctive smell and gum up modern spinning equipment that is made for clean wool.

Raw huacaya alpaca fleece

Raw huacaya alpaca fleece

Some farmers wash their own fibre, using detergent. Ruth McGregor gives a good description of the process. Their products have what some people believe is a more natural ‘feel’. It’s particularly easy to do this with fibres like alpaca, which don’t have much grease. They do remain rather dusty though! Different sheep breeds have different levels of grease. For example, a Gotland sheep fibre will feel cleaner without scouring than a Merino sheep fibre.

Another way to clean wool fibres is to ferment them. This process uses the oils and sweat already present in the wool to ferment a soap. Zoe had me giggling and in awe over her experiment with this process.

How big business does it

Most commercial fibre you buy is scoured. There are two commercial scouring methods: an aqueous (water) process, and an organic solvent process. Scouring in Australia commonly uses the aqueous process. This process uses large amounts of water, heat and some detergent. The raw fibre gets dropped into 4 – 8 bowls (wash tanks) of hot/warm water and moved around to clean it. After each dunking, excess water is squeezed from the fibre before it drops into the next bowl. Each bowl contains cleaner water than the one that preceded it.

Wool-scouring

The commercial wool scouring process

1 ton of wool will usually contain:

  • 150kg of wool grease
  • 40kg of suint
  • 150kg of dirt (in Australia it averages around 180kg)
  • 20 kg of vegetable matter (although this is likely higher in Australia because we have lots of burrs in our grass)
  • 640kg of wool fibre.

Any grease in the washing water is spun off and sold to be made into lanolin. Solids can be separated from the wash and sent to landfill or composted for agricultural use. The washing water can be recycled up to a point, but scouring plants can still go through up to half a million litres of water a day. Scouring plants in Australia must treat water on their site until it’s safe to add to the sewerage system, or apply to the land. In Melbourne, all the scouring plants are city-based. This means they treat their water on site, then our excellent sewerage system takes over.

Water treatment

Water treatment

After scouring, fibre might be carbonised with sulphuric acid or bleached with hydrogen peroxide. Carbonising removes high levels of vegetable matter and softens the fibre. Bleaching brightens the colour of the wool. Not every plant undertakes these steps; I saw how they are done at Victorian Wool Processors.

acid bath and crushing machine

An acid bath (left), and crushing machine used during the carbonisation process

The final step is to dry the fibre, using drum rollers.

Drying tube

Drying tube

Environmental impact

Scouring has a big environmental impact. It uses large amounts of water (whether it is performed at home or commercially). Depending on the type of wool and equipment used, typically 8-20 litres of effluent liquids are created per 1kg of greasy wool. In some ways a commercial system is preferable, because it can recycle its water several times before disposal.

Waste water is high in potassium and nutrients, particularly nitrogen (although not always in a form accessible to plants). A consideration for Melbourne is that scouring works best with soft water. Our drinking water is soft, but our bore water (which local scouring plants may access as well) is hard. It’s possible to soften water, but those additives pose disposal challenges.

Electricity use is high if heat or extraction processes are applied. There are also many biological and chemical contaminants to deal with. The biological contaminants (like grease and weed seeds) often arrive with fibre from the farm. They need to be dealt with at the scouring disposal stage. The chemical contaminants also arrive direct from the farm (like inorganic fertilisers or biodegradable pesticides), or are added during cleaning (like detergents and bleaches). Sodium sulphate, a byproduct of carbonising, needs proper treatment before application to the land.

Dirt collected for fertiliser

Solid waste collected for fertiliser

The (old) Australian scouring effluent standards say that these contaminants can have a big environmental impact, but this can be mitigated with good management. The Global Organic Textile Standard prohibits use of endocrine disrupters (which can be found in detergents) and phosphates. It restricts bleaches to oxygen bleaches only. There’s a lot more detail in these standards that I can’t comprehend. I’d love to have someone’s more educated view on these documents and what they mean for this process.

What does this mean for consumers?

Washing and scouring fibres is a part of clothing manufacture. Few of our animal fibre clothes will skip this process. While fibres like alpaca and goat don’t need intensive scouring, in Australia they’re often processed like wool so the difference in impact is negligible. Even processing fibre at home will still use a significant amount of water, which needs to be disposed of appropriately.

A proactive approach could be to remember that scouring is a process we shouldn’t approach lightly. Let’s use it when we need something new, but try to reduce how often that happens.

Where does scouring happen in Melbourne?

EP Robinson, Geelong

Velieris, Braybrook, Melbourne

Victoria Wool Processers, Laverton North, Melbourne

edited on 11/1/16 to add details about disease risk in raw wool