Tarcutta Textiles
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.


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.


Sally Blake

Eucalyptus Leaf Dye Diary, 2016. Eucalyptus dyed wool, silk and linen. Photo courtesy of Sally Blake.

 

“There was all this knowledge tucked away in drawers. I wanted to get it out.” Natural dyers are great experimenters. But there aren’t many ways for others to use their accumulated knowledge. Canberra based visual artist, Sally Blake wants to change that.

It was natural for Sally to explore natural dyes. She lives in a city full of gardens and surrounded by bushland after all. For Sally, natural dyes are the result of a lovely relationship between humans and nature. The pigments were always present, but dye colours wouldn’t exist without human intervention. Sally began experimenting with plants from her own garden, and from friends. Documenting the results in a diary encouraged more questions and bigger ideas.

Eucalyptus Leaf Drawing 4, 2016. Pressed leaves on paper. 106 x 60 cm. Photo courtesy of Sally Blake.

 

In 2016, Sally set out to create a Eucalypt dye database. She partnered with the Australia council for the Arts. Rangers at the Australian National Botanic Garden (ANBG) provided access to the eucalypts in their collection. They helped Sally identify and responsibly harvest leaves and bark. It was important to Sally to use a method that presented meaningful comparisons. She used the same volumes and weights for all her dye experiments. She used different kinds of fabric (wool, silk and linen) and mordants (alum, iron and copper) systematically. The results are online, along with more detail on Sally’s process. The strong colours of Eucalyptus melliodora and Eucalyptus mannifera are Sally’s favourites. The Rangers at the ANBG liked seeing what colours their eucalypts produced. They look at these trees in a completely different way now.

Sally began to think of eucalypts as “holding the country together”. These trees have adapted to almost all the ecosystems in Australia. In many ways, Sally reflects, their roots hold the land together and their leaves shade us all. Mantles created with the dye database colours express this idea physically. Each mantle displays a design inspired from weaving patterns. Sally chose each design for its ability to look different from close up and far away.

Eucalyptus Mantle 3, 2017. Eucalyptus leaves and eucalyptus dyed wool, silk and linen on paper. 56 x 76 cm. Photo courtesy of Sally Blake.

Many people approach natural dyeing by looking to create a particular colour. Sally recommends a different tact. Start in your own garden with the colours that are there and then work out. This way you’ll get the palette of your, local area. Most of all, have a go. Sally teaches natural dyeing classes at the ANBG and the Canberra Environment Centre.

Sally’s next project will focus on the 46 eucalyptus varieties that are original to Canberra. The stories she gathers about these trees will highlight our relationship to them.

Contact

https://sallyblake.com/

 

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.


Wool2Yarn

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!


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


IxCHeL

“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.


Tarndwarncoort
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!


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!

Llamas

Llamas

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!


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.