We are the Ecosystem

For a couple of days in late October, we joined the Australia Food Sovereignty Alliance Convergence in Canberra. We heard about grazing, geography curriculums, alternatives to organic certification, workers’ rights, and blood products from pastured pigs.

How is that relevant, we hear you ask?

First, a bit of background.

Established in 2010, AFSA was formed as a reaction to food production regulations in Australia weighted towards large scale producers, and unfairly disadvantaging small-scale production. As a body, it is “a collaboration of organisations and individuals working together towards a food system in which people have the opportunity to choose, create and manage their food supply from paddock to plate.”

The AFSA Convergence is an annual get-together for members to meet, share ideas, encourage each other, and shape the agenda and direction for the next year’s board activities.

So why were we there? To learn, and to participate.

As part of a movement towards local and sustainable textiles, Fibreshed Melbourne is working towards the same goals that AFSA is rallying for: sustainable, local agriculture, from farm to consumer, that provides consumers with informed choices in the yarns, textiles and garments they procure.

Not only is AFSA educating the public about food sovereignty issues, and connecting parts of the food processing chain, it is also lobbying government for better policies. It also has a producers’ arm, Fair Food Farmers United (FFFU) established in 2014, to“represent farmers who are at the sharp end of the impacts of free trade, raise awareness about the impacts of cheap imports on farmers, advocate for fair pricing for farmers selling to the domestic market, connect Australian farmers for farmer-to-farmer knowledge sharing, and to be a voice for farmer-friendly regulations and standards.”

Huge props to the AFSA Convergence organisers for making a strong connection with the traditional owners of the land. The event was held at the Burrungiri Cultural Centre in Canberra. Issues of land management and custodianship without traditional owner input were frequently discussed, by traditional land owners. Bruce Pascoe, in facilitated conversation with AFSA president Tammi Jonas, provided insight into what the future of farming in Australia could be, if we included First People in more than just the odd conversation.

The local textile movement is still in its infancy, and we have much to learn from the successes and failures of the local food movement.

 

This site visit was generously supported by Fibreshed California and photographed by Andrew Lance.


Mirrormere Alpacas

It started with sheep. Paula had been experimenting on her permaculture bush block in the ACT. The sheep were part of her strategy towards self sufficiency. Paula’s flock was supplying her with food, but their safety weighed on her mind. She bought an alpaca to guard them…and then bought more, with a few llamas as well. She fell in love with these curious creatures and their range of natural colours.

Paula and her alpaca

Photo by Andrew Lance

Paula values community and relationships. She smiles shyly remembering the friendly welcome the alpaca community gave her. She appreciated and benefited from their help and advice as she learnt the ropes. One relationship she’s developed is with experienced farmer Val, at Qozqo Alpacas. Together, they’re able to contract an alpaca shearer to the district each season. With each shearing, the pile of raw fleece in Paula’s shed grew larger. Paula’s hand spinning couldn’t keep up. Something had to be done. The opening of Boston Fine Fibres mill provided the perfect opportunity. Paula sent some fleece over for processing.

Mirrormere Natural Dyes

Photo by Andrew Lance

For colour, Paula looked close to home first. She made her first dye baths with the wattle and native indigo already growing on her bush block. She expanded into experimenting with eucalyptus leaves, bark and mushrooms. She repeats the hues she likes best. Paula’s quiet modesty belies the stunning results of her work. Warm greys, vibrant terracotta, palest olive green and exquisite taupes.

At each step, Paula has expanded her skill set. She weaves scarves, and would love to make rugs next. Her current experiment is a merino alpaca blend, working with Millpost merino. Watch this space; if successful, the trial might expand to a new, all local product range. Mirrormere is her passion project, squeezed into weekends and spare time when she’s not at her job in the city. Mirrormere is more than a business for Paula. It’s also about loving her animals and finding a way to use the fibre they produce.

Paula has built up an enthusiastic following for her local, traceable products. Mirrormere roving and yarns – both natural colours and hand dyed – are available to buy online.

Paula Mirrormere

Photo by Andrew Lance

The Farm

Stock – 14, with plans to expand

Farming principles: local, sustainable and low impact, while aiming for a high quality fibre product.

Contact

Paula and Graham

Phone: +61 (0) 467 347 279

Location: ACT

https://www.facebook.com/mirrormerealpacas/

 

This site visit was generously supported by Fibreshed California and photographed by Andrew Lance.


Qozqo Alpacas

We were noticed within a few seconds of exiting our car. Buddy the labrador bounced delightedly. He wagged his tail from a polite distance to welcome us to Qozqo alpacas. Val and John followed shortly with a more sedate, but no less welcoming manner.

We sat down to home-baked morning tea as Val told us the story of how they became alpaca farmers. They first kept Angora goats on the property. With foxes a problem in the region, Val purchased some alpacas to guard the herd. It wasn’t long before the easy, inquisitive temperament, stunning colours and soft fleece of the newcomers won them over. Val and John selected their herd based on colour genetics from around Australia. They purchased huacaya and suri alpacas for their colour range and fibre quality. They now supply breeding stock, guard animals and pets locally and overseas as well as raw fleece, processed yarn and hand knitted garments.

Newly shorn alpacas

Photo by Andrew Lance

The show circuit has been an important source of support and encouragement for Val and John with many broad ribbons, including the best grey huacaya in the National a couple of years ago. Befriending a show organiser lead to an introduction to a shearer from New Zealand. Now that shearer stays with them each year when he shears their alpacas, and those of the local district. Val and John pay it forward by helping local alpaca farmers with advice.

Val always had an eye out for ways to utilise and value-add to the quality fibre her herd produces. She contracts the local mini mill, Boston Fine Fibres, to spin a range of light weight yarns for sale. She’s gone one step further and drawn together a team of knitters to produce hand made garments for sale. The result is the most exquisite and soft range of products we’ve seen from a farm. Baby clothes and shawls form the largest part of the collection. Given their hand made nature, the garments are priced generously. Val and her knitters challenge themselves with new and interesting patterns. The range of styles, particularly lacework, is testament to their skill. Qozqo’s products are available through local retailers and through their online store. It is worth making a direct enquiry because not all products are listed online.

A range of handknitted shawls from Qozqo alpacas

Photo by Qozqo alpacas

Finishing our cups of tea, we walked over to the pen to greet the alpacas. Newly shorn, their lithe bodies were on show without their usual dense coats. Val and John’s breeding program has resulted in the full range of natural alpaca colours. They have a large herd for Australia, numbering around 300 animals. Val checks the herd twice a day during birthing season to ensure all is well and check out any new arrivals. This is particularly exciting when breeding for grey, because she never knows what will pop out!

Val told us she believed a cria had been born a couple of hours ago. We headed into the paddock in the hopes of catching a glimpse. Walking across the paddock, we got our first clear look at the view from Qozqo over the valley. The farm is in an incredibly beautiful setting.

Photo by Andrew Lance

We watched the alpacas form a line as they traversed the paddock. They approached the new mother, each animal stepping up to nuzzle the newborn cria. As we made our goodbyes, the newborn was already gambolling around the paddock under the gum trees.

The Farm

Area – 200 hectares (494 acres)

Stock – 300 huacaya and suri alpaca

Vet designed biosecurity program

Contact

Val and John

Phone: +61 (0) 412 887 857

Location: Williamsdale, ACT

http://www.eliteaustralianalpaca.com/

This site visit was generously supported by Fibreshed California and photographed by Andrew Lance.


Great Ocean Road Woollen Mill

It is not your typical location for a wool mill. Located close to the state’s tourist highway with local fibre becoming of increasing interest to visitors, Nick and Isabel see opportunity in being part of the tourist trail.  Indeed, the renowned food credentials of the area prove that the locals are good at bespoke, gourmet products.

The yarn produced at the mill is exactly that. Using only natural colours from selected local farms, Nick and Isabel showcase the best Australian fibre products. They produce a range of yarns in wool and alpaca blends and are famous for their  on-trend chunky yarns. Some of their product is hyperlocal, sourced from their own alpaca, farmed on site and available for photo shoots with adoring customers.

We were invited to participate in the making of the mill’s latest yarn collaboration, with local wool farm Tarndwarncoort: ‘The Henry’. This chunky 14ply yarn combines the silkiness of white alpaca with the strength and loftiness of Polwarth wool. We helped out where we could, probably making Nick and Isabel’s job harder! We followed the making of the yarn from cleaning the wool and alpaca, blending, spinning the individual threads and plying into the finished yarn.   Here’s a look at what we got up to:

The Mill

You get the sense that the recently opened mill has begun to find its rhythm. Isabel and Nick have worked hard at fine tuning all of the machinery to produce a premium, unique product.  Nick puts this down to a willingness to play and experiment. They are willing to try any fibre combinations that come to hand.  This commitment to the machinery is matched by business acumen and a clarity of goals. Isabel’s drawn from her business background and pure grit to see their vision come to light.  

The mill is committed to efficiency of resources.  Nick and Isabel are “not Greenies” but the lack of access to mains water, sewerage or regular rubbish collection means that every decision weighed against its impact on the land. The farm makes use of low waste, low resource use and positive impact solutions. No dyes or chemicals are used in the mill so waste water can entirely be reused on site.  All of the water used on farm and in the mill is collected rainwater. Any fibre waste is resourcefully reused as a felted product or in the garden.   Incredibly, their 3kW solar system comfortably covers the farm and mill’s energy needs – this is less energy than the average 2 person family uses!

The Farm

Nick and Isabel have improved the farmland since its previous use as a horse farm and dairy. The soil was compacted and prone to flood when Nick and Isabel moved in. Their implementation of lower stocking rates, paddock rotation of the alpacas, rest for the soil and planting of native vegetation plots has meant that the pasture is now spongy and soft. The alpaca, both suri and huacaya, were happy to come up to us and show off their lovely locks. Great Ocean Road Mill alpaca are bred for dense (2kg) fleece in a range of colours. Keeping them company are two visiting merino sheep, one black. Historically unwanted, coloured sheep are invaluable to mills working with coloured fibre.

The Yarn

The mill’s standard product is a semi-worsted yarn. They also stock rovings, batts and felt products. Excitingly, they have just finished a trial worsted yarn, using carded and combed fibre from Cashmere Connections.

Great Ocean Road Mill produce their own product and take yarn commissions.   You can buy their products  online and at select retailers. Catch Isabel and Nick at most of the big fibre markets.  The mill is open to visitors and with a little notice and you can organise a tour.

The Facts

Product – Semi-worsted yarns, rovings, batts and felt

Maximum Capacity – 3,000kg/year

Min Order – 1kg (note that there will be a minimum loss of 65g for each run plus more depending on cleanliness)

Max Order – 120kg (larger orders will be considered on request)

Ideal Order Size – 5-20kg

Staple Lengths – 7-15cm

Lead time Required for Orders – Winter – 4 weeks; Summer – 2 weeks.

Processing Time – 10 hours of machine time

Current Fibre Types Processed – wool, alpaca and mohair.

Prototyping Fibre Types Requests – all natural fibres welcome

Yarn Price – $24-25/kg alpaca and blends

Restrictions – No dyes, natural fibres only

Water Use – all water collected and reused onsite

Waste Water Impacts – all water collected and reused onsite. Improvements made to soil lead to less runoff and greater retention.

Energy Supply: >95% onsite solar, plus gas. 

The Farm

Area – 8 hectares (20 acres)

Stock – 19 alpaca, 2 merino + 3 agistment alpaca

Seasonal rotation

Own hay as feed

Minimal drenches 

Use no chemicals or soil additives

Contact

Nick and Isabel

Phone: +61 (0) 458 717 260
Address: 1580 Cobden-Warrnambool Road
Ecklin South, Victoria, 3265

http://gorwm.com.au/


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)