A visit to this farmer-owned knitting mill that’s soon to close its doors

Words and images by Emily Steele

Denzel Clarke, chairman of the board at Tarcutta Textiles, with his circular knitting machine.

Visiting Tarcutta Textiles in country NSW is like stepping into a welcoming family home. Everything about this farmer-owned knitting mill exudes the gentle warmth, humour and energy of Denzel Clarke, the chair of its board and head of production. The timing of my visit was especially poignant, with the mill due to close its doors by mid 2018.

Tarcutta Textiles was started 25 years ago when Denzel and other local sheep farmers decided to manufacture and promote their own merino wool. When Tarcutta Textiles opened in Tarcutta, a regional town 1.5 hours north of Albury on the Hume Highway, the Albury-Wodonga region was an important national fibre manufacturing hub. Since then, Denzel and his team have seen much of the local industry disappear as the effects of globalisation have meant that cheaper, mass-produced garments have flooded the local market.

“Since we’ve been in business, microfibers derived from chemicals have taken over a large portion of the clothing market,” explains Denzel. “These garments have saturated the market at low cost.”

In stark contrast to the economic drivers of fast fashion, the principles of community and connection have always motivated the owners of Tarcutta Textiles, along with a desire to produce garments that will last.

“We’ve sought to create affordable, high quality merino garments with a touch of yesteryear”, says Denzel. “Our merino rugby tops have always been our signature garment. They are an iconic Australian piece and hold meaning for many Australians, whether as a reminder of our farming culture, a connection to sporting traditions, or a link to generations past.”

Amongst the traditional rugby tops in the racks, Denzel points out a group in more unusual colourways, affectionately knowns as ‘the Uglies’. With a nod to longheld sustainability practices, the Uglies are made from leftover yarns that might otherwise be thrown away. “We deeply value our land, sheep and all the resources that go into creating yarn, so we avoid waste wherever we can. The Uglies are part of our suite of anti-waste practices, and we have a lot of fun creating new colour combinations for that line”, says Denzel.

After touring the shop front, where I also see merino jumpers, scarves, cardigans and skirts, we head out to the factory floor. I’m keen to hear the sheep- to- garment process, and to take a look at the knitting machines.

The first step for Tarcutta Textiles is sourcing local merino wool. The wool is sent offshore for scouring, spinning and dyeing before returning to Tarcutta Textiles courtesy of two companies, Macquarie Textiles Limited and Wool Connect. The dyed merino yarn arrives on cones of 19-21 micron yarn; a weight that allows production of soft-wearing garments, explains Denzel.

The factory floor is primarily devoted to knitting the yarn into fabric. The day I visit, the knitting machines are in full swing creating a rich burgundy fabric. Two machines are dedicated to torsos for pullovers, and a third produces sleeves. The room clickety clacks with the machines and I have to lean in to catch Denzel’s stories.

There are two main types of machines here – circular and flat knitters. The circular is efficient and easy, making enough fabric for a cardigan in just six minutes. Denzel explains around 70% of the fabric at the mill is made on the circular. In contrast, the flat knitting machines take up to an hour to create enough fabric for a cardigan and are far more prone to misadventure. For the flat knitters Denzel must regularly circle the factory floor checking for mistakes and making manual corrections.

Up close and personal with the circular knitting machine.

I also see a machine that reclaims wool. This is used when the occasional bolt of faulty fabric is produced. The machine allows yarn to be wound back onto a cone for reuse. It runs at several thousand feet a minute, so it takes around 30 minutes to reclaim a big cone of yarn.

Finally, I’m introduced to a machine that makes button strips for cardigans. Just prior to my arrival it had created six bands to match the burgundy cardigans scheduled for imminent production.

I’m curious as to what happens once the machines have finished their job. Denzel says most fabric is wet finished so it shrinks to size, then pressed and steamed to ensure it doesn’t fray. Next, a seamstress cuts the fabric ready for garment production. Garments are sewn either on the factory floor or in seamstresses’ homes. On the way past the sewing stations we stop to say hi to a seamstress working on 100% merino blue-and-yellow striped tops.

The tour conveniently ends at the tea room. Against the backdrop of the whirring machines, Denzel makes us a cuppa and I have a chance to ask about his experiences at the mill, and what’s led to the decision to close the doors:

Emily: What has life been like, running Tarcutta Textiles?

Denzel: It’s been quite a hard life in some ways, but also rewarding. I’ve had top notch staff, and I’m very proud of the garments we’ve made and of the role we’ve played in our local community and the Australian textile manufacturing industry.

But as with any small business, I’ve worked long hours. I’ve always worked the factory floor. Being the only person who can work and fix the machines brings quite a responsibility. In the early days I travelled regularly for markets, and I’d increase fabric production before travelling so the seamstresses could keep working while I was away. And I’ve always had my farms to manage too, first sheep farms and then we moved to cattle. I’ve still got three cattle farms that I manage as well as the mill.

Emily: How have you seen consumer tastes change over the years?

Denzel: We’ve seen a lot of change. One example lies in fabric weight. We started off using a heavy merino fabric from our top-quality wool, but once everyone started getting ducted heating in homes and offices they stopped buying those garments. We realised they were too heavy for city people, so we moved to predominantly lighter yarn and fabrics.

Emily: How have you managed to stay open all these years, particularly in view of many other mills closing much earlier?

Denzel: I’ll tell you my biggest secret. Having the seamstresses also work in the shopfront has kept the quality of the garments high. It’s been a winning formula for us. The quality of the garments went up and stayed up as soon as we put that system in place. And our customers always enjoy meeting the person who made their garment.

Emily: What has contributed to your decision to close the mill?

Denzel: Sadly it no longer makes financial sense to keep our doors open. There have been several contributing factors. The main one being globalisation. The truth is you can buy a rugby top from a competitor at a fraction of our price. What people don’t understand is that it’s a lower quality garment, from the wool that is used through to the garment production, not to mention the questionable working conditions in some of the offshore factories. The second factor is the highway bypass that was built in 2011. Before that our factory and showroom were on the highway and an important portion of our trade came from passing traffic. Our profit dropped 40% as soon as the bypass was built and it never recovered. And I think the third big factor is that people don’t necessarily understand the advantages of natural fibres and local production anymore. Younger generations are brought up with the mass-produced model and don’t know any different. It’s that thing where they don’t know what they don’t know. 

Before I head off Denzel’s wife Nola and the factory’s seamstress join us around the table. Their easy camaraderie as they joke over who makes the best morning tea turns sombre as they mull over the mill closure.

“It’s the end of an era for us all, and in many ways it’s a sad time,” says Denzel. “We just want to enjoy this last period, hopefully see our regular clients for final visits, move through our last batches of production and see our final garments head off to good homes.”

And with that, Denzel is up and tending to the knitters.

 

To purchase an affordable, high quality merino garment from Tarcutta Textiles before the mill closure in mid 2018, head to the website, or visit the showroom at 10 Sydney St Tarcutta NSW. Everything is 15% off at the time of publication. To find out more about Tarcutta Textiles, contact Denzel on info@tarcuttatextiles.com.au or (02) 6928 7332.