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)


Fibershed community: Visiting the Handweavers & Spinners Guild of Victoria

I never knew there was a Handweavers and Spinners Guild in Victoria. I had assumed the little shop front near my home with hand knits displayed in the front window was the local yarn store. Not knowing where to begin with my Fibershed project, I decided to start here and see if they had any advice for me.

What’s inside?

The shop is set up in several different layers – there is the members’ gallery/shop area at the front where pieces made by their members are displayed and available for purchase. Directly behind that is a space available for many of their guild’s gatherings; there was a weaving group working there during my visit.

I was amazed at the range and diversity of groups that the guild supported. They have spinning and weaving groups of course, but also natural dying, tapestry and Japanese braiding. A kind volunteer took the time to introduce me to all of their activities, including their yearly retreat in Harrietville, the much anticipated Textile Bazaar (a rummage sale of second-hand yarns and equipment donated to the guild) and regular classes during the year in installments and held as intensives during summer when country members are more likely to be able to join in.

But wait, there’s more!

Beyond the first couple of visible sections, the shop revealed far more than I’d been able to see from the street: behind a partition on the left, there was a gallery area for temporary exhibitions. At the time I visited it was full of textiles from Bhutan, but I have to go back because the current display is of socks in all different designs.

Along the back wall there was a members library full of books, periodicals, newsletters, videos, DVDs and slides. There was also a doorway to a back room, which I think had sink facilities for the natural dyeing group.

On the right behind another partition, there is a resources shop with some balls of wool like I’m used to, but also spinning tools, dye bottles, resource books and tops. Now, here is where I had to learn something, and the knowledgeable shop manager helped me out. Tops are fleece that has been shorn and trimmed down to the best fibre. They can be bought washed or unwashed, dyed or in natural colours. They’re your starting point for spinning or felting and so naturally the guild’s store was full of a variety of tops!

Talking to those who know

I got confirmation that there are wool growers in Victoria (and the far east of South Australia, within the boundary of my project) whom I could buy tops from. The store manager explained that the wool needs to be scoured (washed) to remove oils, lanolin and dirt. There is only one commercial scourer in Victoria (it seems like wool mills might have their own though?) and you need to have a licence to scour wool because it can be quite a polluting process. I’ll also then need to get my top carded (brushed).

The guild members I spoke to suggested I look into felting, otherwise I’ll need to get the fibre spun into yarn for weaving or knitting/crochet. It’s food for thought, and I have very little experience in knitting and weaving, and none at all in felting or spinning so perhaps I can work with some guild members on this project.