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/


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!