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.


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/


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


Velieris

Tucked away in an industrial pocket of Braybrook, Velieris manufacture beautiful carpets and rugs. I visited because they offer scouring as a service to other textile businesses.

Fibre first

Rocco, the production manager showed me around on the day. We started in the scouring room, which was piled high with bales of fibre. Velieris buys wool and alpaca fibre from co-ops who gather local fibre in a central location. The fibre is sorted for quality, length and colour at the co-op, then delivered to Melbourne. Velieris also buys fibre from Peru and NZ to make up the quantities they need.

Scoured fibre

Scoured fibre

The company scours for doona and pillow manufacturers, local processers and UK spinning mills. Velieris accept orders between 1000-50kg, which makes their service accessible to smaller players.

Clean it up

Bubbles!

Bubbles!

Velieris use an eco soap in their scouring bowls. The first four bowls have soap; their water is steam heated. Effluent from scouring goes through their water treatment plant to remove the soap. Some chemicals are used at this stage. They also need to cool the water down before it is released. Their sludge, all the dirt removed in scouring, goes into landfill.

Water treatment

Water treatment

At this stage, if the fibre has been processed for an external company, Rocco bales the scoured fibres up and sends them off. All the carpet fibre moves to the next stage of mixing, carding and combing.

Mix it up

Velieris specialise in luxury naturally coloured products. They use a weighing machine to mix colour ‘recipes’. Eliminating the dying process reduces water usage and retains the softness of the wool and alpaca fibres Velieris use.

Weighing machine (green, on left) and carder (grey box on right)

Weighing machine (green, on left) and carder (grey box on right)

There’s no need for dehairing, because this fibre is destined for carpet. The fibres are sucked into a huge carding machine, then transfered to combers. Melbourne’s manufacturing history feels very close when you’re standing next to these old, but still powerful machines.

Combing machines

Combing machines

The combed fibres are gilled twice to even them out before spinning. I loved watching the fibre snake up into the gilling machine!

The resulting slivers are then spun and plyed into carpet yarn. The yarn is tufted before heading to the loom to be woven into carpet. Velieris do moth proof their carpets, but they are happy to skip this step at the customer’s request.

Weaving it together

Carpet maker

Carpet loom

The carpet loom is a thing of wonder. I couldn’t capture it all in a photo, so I’ll try to describe it. You have the loom up one end of the factory of course, but what you see is more like a yarn blood system. Leading into the loom are about 10 metal frames. Each frame holds about 10 cones of yarn. Each cone of yarn is strung through the frame, to the loom to make the warp. The whole system takes up about 15 square metres. It’s impressive.

Once woven, the carpet gets checked over by hand for any blemishes like loose threads. It’s trimmed to create a neat consistent top, then sent off for backing. Velieris makes the carpet entirely at their Braybrook workshop, except for the latex backing. This is done by an external specialist in Melbourne because it’s cheaper.

Checking for blemishes

Checking for blemishes

Side line

There was one row of spinning machines that weren’t running when I visited. These machines were bought in error – they are fine yarn spinners. Rocco’s been experimenting with them to get a good product to attract a buyer with. He can get a 270 tex yarn. He’s met a group interested in returning fine yarn spinning to Melbourne, but they don’t yet have the skills to use the machinery. Will we see fine yarns in this Fibreshed again one day?

Carpet and fine yarn samples from Velieris

Carpet and fine yarn samples from Velieris


Victorian Wool Processors

I didn’t expect to be visiting a wool scourer. There’s a view in crafting circles of Australia that wool scouring has left Australia. It turns out that scouring does still exist. Victoria Wool Processors was as interested in having me visit, as I was in visiting them.

Getting started

David, the managing director of Victoria Wool Processors (VWP) showed me around the factory. He was open about the environmental challenges of scouring, and passionate about the potential of wool as a natural material.

Raw wool bales on a conveyer to be broken up

Raw wool bales on a conveyer to be broken up

VWP purchases wool directly from Australian farmers, to meet orders from overseas mills. The raw wool arrives compressed in bales and is broken up before scouring.

Scouring

VWP use one million litres of potable water a day as well as 100,000 litres of bore water. That’s down from 1.3 million litres of potable water during Melbourne’s last drought. David is working to use less potable water. The alternative is bore water, which needs desalination.

​The raw wool drops into the first scouring bowl, a dark mix of greasy wool, detergent and dirty water. David surprised me by explaining that at this stage, dirty water is better for cleaning the wool! The wool is agitated and moved around by metal forks. It then passes through rollers to press out the water, grease and dirt. The wool drops into a new scouring bowl to start the process again. In total, there are seven scouring bowls in VWP’s system.

David explained that fresh water enters the system at the last, cleanest bowl. It travels down the system by gravity; each bowl’s height is lower than the previous bowl. Eventually it reaches the first, dirtiest scouring bowl. Here the water is drawn off to separate out the dirt and grease. That water is then recycled back into the dirtiest scouring bowl.

Wool grease

Wool grease

The separated wool grease is packed up for export to make into lanolin. Lanolin is used for personal care products,  lubricants and even vitamin D suppliments for livestock. It’s a useful ingredient, and contributes to 50% of VWP’s income.

Solid waste collected for fertiliser

Solid waste collected for fertiliser

The remaining solid waste is collected in huge piles at the back of VWP’s property and composted. After 6 months the grass seeds in the mix have died off and its likely to be a useful farm fertiliser.

Scouring gives a 52% yield, which means that around 48% of raw wool is actually grease, sweat and muck. Wow. The scouring process removes most, but not all vegetable matter. Depending on the end use, vegetable matter is spun off during top making, or VWP removes it by carbonising the fibre.​ 95% of VWP wool is scoured for bedding products, the remaining 5% is carbonised for fashion fibres.

Carbonising

During carbonising, the fibre drops into a sulphuric acid and water bath, then neutralised in an alkaline bath. This process repeats two more times; the acid dries the seed. The next stage heats the fibre up to 110 degrees celcius, which dries the seed further. Finally, the fibre drops into a line of crushers, which reduce the seed to a dust that is removed.

acid bath and crushing machine

An acid bath (left), and crushing machine used during the carbonisation process

The acid bath is recycled for two weeks. Only the water in the bath needs topping up because it evaporates over this time. The acid and alkaline baths are combined to neutralise them before disposal. The seed dust from the crushers is pure carbon, so that is added to the solid waste to aid composting. The workers in this section wore face masks because the air is dusty.

I asked David why the extra effort of carbonising is worth it. He explained that it softens the fibres, which is useful with fashion products. The process is also very good at removing vegetable matter. This is a particular issue for Australia, because of the sticky burrs we have in the paddocks.

Last steps

Whether it is just scoured, or carbonised as well, the wool is bleached with hydrogen peroxide.

Drying tube

Drying tube

The drying machine contains huge perforated barrels. The wool drops on the outside of the first barrel and air sucks from within. This spreads the wool flat across the surface of the barrel and dries it. As the barrel rotates, the wool passes to the next barrel, moving the fibres around so it dries evenly.

Dried wool

Dried wool

The dry wool is then sucked up into a pipe that runs along the ceiling of the factory. This gets it to over to the baling machine in another part of the factory. It’s quite Willy Wonka-esque!

Walking over to this section of the factory felt like Christmas. The dried wool dropped from the ceiling pipe into one of several huge piles on the ground. It was gorgeous. The wool is quality checked one last time before being passed to the baling machine.

The bales are so heavy, David has strict safety rules for how they should be handled.

Baled wool

Baled wool

The business of scouring

Victoria Wool Processors scour 3% of Australia’s total wool clip. The company employs 17 people. Its activities generate the same level of waste as 80,000 people (per year?). Labour and waste disposal are David’s two major costs of business.

Currently most VWP product sells directly to mills in South East Asia and China. Their production calendar is organised around the Northern hemisphere buying cycle. David would like to expand sales to Europe, a market that demands solid eco credentials.​ It’s a good time to do this. At current exchange rates, the cost of scouring in Australia is competitive with China.

AWP's Central control and monitoring system

VWP’s Central control and monitoring system

​It was fascinating to see VWP’s machinery in action. I felt welcomed by the staff, who were curious about my visit. They clearly had a comfortable relationship with their boss. I can see that David is motivated by environmental as well as commercial concerns. It’s interesting to see the solutions he’s come up with so far.


Feeling Sheepish About Wool

The title isn’t just a pithy phrase, I am feeling sheepish about sheep! As an Australian I’ve absorbed so much knowledge about sheep and wool. Australia’s history, sheep farming and wool are closely tied. My own family’s history is part of this story. Yet at the same time, I don’t know much about this topic at all! This post records what I’ve learnt so far. I’m quite sure there’s aspects I have left out, there may be some parts that are wrong. I’ll keep updating it as I learn more.

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.

Baa baa black sheep

Like lots of other good things, sheep probably originated from Mesopotamia. Originally they were domesticated for their meat and milk. We can thank the Persians for breeding them for wool production.

Merino is shorthand for ‘sheep’ in Australia. We’re famous for the quantity and quality of Merino wool we produce. So much so, that I’d never really considered that there might be other kinds of sheep! I’ve since discovered the following breeds are farmed local to me:

Talking to farmers, I discovered that they farm different breeds for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, they pick a breed that suits their environment. Poorly suited sheep get sick, which is bad for the sheep and the farmer. The reason why Merino is such a popular sheep in Australia? It copes well with our dry conditions. Victoria is wetter than the Australian average, so other breeds can be better suited to each farm’s microclimate. Some breeds are better for wool, others for meat, and a lot of the breeds listed above are suited to both purposes.

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.

Environmental impact

As ruminant animals, sheep produce methane, which is a greenhouse gas. Alpacas produce methane too, but to a lesser degree. An industry funded lifecycle review doesn’t provide clear answers on other environmental questions. Where I live the rainfall is higher than most of Australia, and farms keep a low density of livestock. Because of that, the report suggests that water usage and erosion may not be big issues on the farm.

Producing wool uses less energy than alternative synthetic fibres. Water and energy use are still significant issues during processing and dying. Scouring wool can use chemicals that interfere with natural endocrine systems. Treatments against moths and beetles don’t sound awesome either. It’s important to note that a lot of wool’s water use comes from consumers washing their own garments.

Let’s talk about mulesing.

No, this has nothing to do with donkey-horse offspring. Mulesing is a process undertaken to prevent flystrike, but it’s not very nice itself.

Flystrike is one of the most common problems sheep suffer in Australia. Flys lay their eggs on the dirty wool near a sheep’s tail. When the eggs hatch, the maggots eat the closest meat they can find. Gross. Unfortunately for the sheep, mulesing prevents flystrike by cutting a crescent of skin below the tail off. This has been happening in Australia since the 1930s without anaesthetic, which has a lot of people upset. No doubt the sheep aren’t happy about it either. The practice is being phased out, but its replacement requires clamping the under-tail skin tightly until the connective tissue dyes and the excess falls off. I don’t know that I’m much happier about that solution either.

Getting to know some Dohne Merinos at the Bendigo wool fair

Getting to know some Poll Merinos at the Bendigo wool fair

Perhaps this is enough to put you off wool, and it was for me too until I talked to farmers of other sheep breeds. Mulesing is performed on Merino sheep because they have lots of rolling skin. All that skin means more wool, but also makes Merinos susceptible to fly strike. Other breeds don’t have the same issues and some naturally are bare-breeched, so they don’t suffer fly strike at all.

I was lax when I visited the farmers listed below and forgot to ask them about other steps they took to keep their sheep healthy. Sheep suffer from lice and worms, so I assume they undergo a similar vaccination schedule to alpacas. I’ll update this section once I’ve got more information.

Inspecting fleece

Inspecting a Dohne Merino fleece

Fleece

Sheep have been bred to be white for easier dying. Their ancestors were brown, and boutique flocks often run coloured sheep because they’re popular with handweavers, spinners and knitters. It’s possible therefore to get wool in white, cream, fawn, browns and shades of grey through to black. True black is rare; more often it’s a very dark brown. What colours you get depend on the breed and the individual animal.

Fleece weight is dependant on breed, averaging around 4-6kg. Wool is naturally coated with grease, which water-proofs the sheep and reduces moth attack. Pretty much all the wool we wear has been scoured to remove the grease, which can be processed into lanolin. Dust and mites can get trapped in its fibres, so wool isn’t always suitable for people with allergies.

Wool is very durable. Wool is a fine fibre, usually ranging from 22-34 microns. Super fine Merino can measure less than 15 microns! Each fibre has little burs along its length, which is what makes wool scratchy to touch (finer wools are less scratchy). Fibre length ranges from 5-13cm. Wool for handspinning aims to be long because it’s easier to spin; longer fibres also make stronger yarn. Some breeds have a wool with lustre, particularly if the end product is intended for crafters.

Wool has a lot of crimp, which insulates by trapping air. The crimp also makes the fibre elastic, which gives garments good shape ‘memory’ and resilience. Wool keeps you dry by soaking up water. Its insulating properties mean wool gets warmer when its a little wet! Wool has a lovely drape, but it does pill during use. Wool is a relatively inexpensive fibre.

a hand dyed knitted vest

a hand dyed knitted vest

Wool is made into so many things, it’s hard to keep track. It’s woven and knitted into fabrics for fashion and home wear. Its used as building insulation and made into carpets, mulch pads and mattress stuffing. In Australia, most home wool production goes towards bedding products like doonas and mattress covers. Our fashion-quality wool is exported to mills in Asia and Europe.

Where to see wool locally

Granite Haven – Marraweeney, Strathbogie ranges

Tarndwarncoort – Warncoort, Western district

Yarn Providers

Header Photo: Paige Green


Carding, Combing and Spinning

It’s been hard to twist my head around how scoured fibres are transformed into yarn (pun intended). I knew little at the start of this Fibreshed project. Everyone seemed to have slightly different definitions of the same terms, which confused me further. In retrospect, I think each person I met taught me different parts of the process. I couldn’t see the big picture. It’s not until I came to write this post that it started to come together. Please forgive me if I’m wrong on some points and point me in the right direction please!

What’s in a name?

It’s a bit backwards, but I found spinning easier to understand when I sorted out which yarn type was which:

Woollen – this isn’t just fibre from a sheep, but also a style of yarn spinning. Woollen yarns are warm, airy and soft. They often have a fuzzy appearance. While they’re not hard wearing, they’re perfect for scarves, hats, sweaters and felted knits. Their short fibres align in different directions, making air pockets that insulate.

Worsted – a smooth yarn that is hard wearing and drapes well. The tightly twisted fibres of worsted yarns often have a sheen. They’re used for suits, socks and sportswear. Their long fibres all face the same direction, making them very strong.

Wool skeins

Worsted wool skeins in the Tarndwarncoort wool shop

Simple, right? Until you realise that there’s a subset of yarns, known as semi-worsted. This is the yarn that slunk silently in my spinning conversations, waiting for me to discover its meaning! This is yarn that has been prepared with in a woollen style, but spun with a worsted method. It combines qualities of both yarn types. There’s also a semi-woollen which is worsted processed but woollen spun. This seems to be less common.

n.b. when getting this article proof read by actual spinners, I discovered that the definitions of semi-worsted and semi-woollen are different depending on which spinner you ask. I’ve gone with the definition used by a grower and processor in my local Fibreshed.

Alpaca yarn

Semi-worsted yarns from Wool 2 Yarn

Step by step

So now we’ve sorted out where we’re heading, let’s go back to the beginning. After scouring, fibre may be carded, combed and spun. Which of these steps are taken depends on whether you want to felt, knit or weave with the fibre.

Plant fibres like cotton and hemp have a similar but slightly different process to what I outline below. There is equipment to do this with the Melbourne Fibreshed, but I haven’t been able to see these in action yet. I’ll update this post when I know more.

flow diagram of the carding, combing and spinning process

The carding, combing and spinning process

Some processers add water and/or anti-static before starting. The water relaxes the fibre and reduces dust. The anti-static goes a step further to reduce the build up of static during the process, which can break the fibres.

Dehairing – Alpaca, goat mohair and cashmere all have long scratchy fibres mixed in with the softer fibres we prefer to use for clothing. They can be removed by hand, but most people use dehairing machines instead. Unfortunately this ends up as a waste product in the process, because the result is usually mixed with grass seeds. If you can think of a use for it, there’s a lot of fibre processors who’d like to hear your ideas.

The dehairing machine

A dehairing machine: the bin at the front holds the smooth fibre that comes out at the end of the process

Mixing – if the yarn is made from a blend of different fibres, it’s often mixed at this stage. Mills work to ‘recipes’ where fibres are measured by weight, then spread out on top of each other in layers. Chunks of this mix are separated out for processing, helping to keep the ratio mix consistent. With hand processing, staples of fibre are spread out in even layers on a hand or drum carder.

Carding – fibres are often a bit clumped after scouring, so this step opens the fibres up. Carding also removes a little bit of vegetable matter. This is where the process begins to split according to what you’re aiming for. There are woollen carders and worsted carders. The slivers that come off the woollen cards are ready for spinning. Worsted cards begin to align the fibres a little bit before moving on to gilling. 

Carding machines look super cool, with their rotating drums with wires at different lengths. This part of the process seems to be proprietary, so I can’t show you any photos of a carding machine in action. Luckily, hard carders are less shy of paparazzi.

Gilling – carding shakes things up a bit, so the fibre is usually gilled several times. Gilling machines ensure the worsted sliver is a uniform weight throughout. They also further align the fibres.

Gilling machines are the swans of the process – they take the slivers up gracefully. All the work happens where you can’t see it inside the machine, so it looks like magic.

Combing – this is the slowest part. Combing straightens out the fibres, and removes the shortest ones (the waste from this process is fed back into the woollen process, which uses short fibres). After combing, all the fibres are well aligned with each other, and more vegetable matter has been removed. It’s gilled one last time, then passed to felters or spinners as a finished top.

Exiting the combing machine

Fibres exiting the combing machine

Spinning – The woollen sliver or worsted top is condensed into thin roving. This is drawn out and twisted to create a single ply of yarn. To hand spin woollen yarn, the roving is rolled into rolags. It’s then drawn out and spun using a longdraw drafting technique. To hand spin worsted yarn, the roving is drawn out and spun using a short drafting movement. A man’s jumper requires about 1kg of roving. I’ve been told that this would take most hand spinners about 6 days to spin.

A single ply yarn can be used as is, but it is often plyed to increase its strength and stop it twisting in on itself. Spinning creates tension in the fibres, so the yarn is steamed or rested to release that energy.

The state of the industry

The majority of large mills in the Melbourne fibreshed don’t produce local yarn anymore. There are several mini mills that produce semi-worsted yarns for hand knitting and crochet.

Weaving requires a thinner yarn. Waverley Woollen Mills in Launceston produces woven products from carded fleece, spinning fine yarn in the process. The only processors spinning fine yarn in Australia that I know of are Paddock to Ply in Queensland and Certton in Sydney. 

Where does spinning happen in Melbourne?

Cashmere connections, Western district

Fibre Naturally, Dandenong ranges

Velieris, Melbourne

Wool 2 Yarn, Mornington Peninsula

Great Ocean Road Mill, Warnambool

 

Boston Fine Fibres, Queanbeyan

Echo Beach, Mount Barker

Bendigo Woollen Mills, Bendigo

Australian Country Spinners, Wangaratta

Creswick Woollen Mills

First Edition Fibre and Yarns, Euroa

Goldfeilds Mohair Farm, Bookham


Washing and Scouring

At its most basic, scouring is a way of cleaning textile fibres. Wool that’s been shorn from a sheep is known as greasy, or raw wool. Just under 50% of raw wool isn’t actually wool at all: it’s grease, dirt, sweat (suint), burrs and seeds. Many other animal fibres also get washed: alpaca, goat hair and silk all get some level of cleaning. Angora rabbit is apparently an exception. Plant fibres have different processes, although decortated hemp does have a degumming stage.

So many ways to clean fibre!

Raw fibre often contains burrs that can scratch, and may contain disease that can transfer to humans, so it should be treated with caution. Cleaning removes the danger of disease and some burrs. There are many different traditions and ways to wash and scour a fibre. In this context, washing aims to remove large particles and sweat. Scouring uses heat to remove the oils from the fibre. Some people choose not to scour their fibre, because the oils can help the spinning process. Greasy wool is also more water resistant. Wool grease can develop a distinctive smell and gum up modern spinning equipment that is made for clean wool.

Raw huacaya alpaca fleece

Raw huacaya alpaca fleece

Some farmers wash their own fibre, using detergent. Ruth McGregor gives a good description of the process. Their products have what some people believe is a more natural ‘feel’. It’s particularly easy to do this with fibres like alpaca, which don’t have much grease. They do remain rather dusty though! Different sheep breeds have different levels of grease. For example, a Gotland sheep fibre will feel cleaner without scouring than a Merino sheep fibre.

Another way to clean wool fibres is to ferment them. This process uses the oils and sweat already present in the wool to ferment a soap. Zoe had me giggling and in awe over her experiment with this process.

How big business does it

Most commercial fibre you buy is scoured. There are two commercial scouring methods: an aqueous (water) process, and an organic solvent process. Scouring in Australia commonly uses the aqueous process. This process uses large amounts of water, heat and some detergent. The raw fibre gets dropped into 4 – 8 bowls (wash tanks) of hot/warm water and moved around to clean it. After each dunking, excess water is squeezed from the fibre before it drops into the next bowl. Each bowl contains cleaner water than the one that preceded it.

Wool-scouring

The commercial wool scouring process

1 ton of wool will usually contain:

  • 150kg of wool grease
  • 40kg of suint
  • 150kg of dirt (in Australia it averages around 180kg)
  • 20 kg of vegetable matter (although this is likely higher in Australia because we have lots of burrs in our grass)
  • 640kg of wool fibre.

Any grease in the washing water is spun off and sold to be made into lanolin. Solids can be separated from the wash and sent to landfill or composted for agricultural use. The washing water can be recycled up to a point, but scouring plants can still go through up to half a million litres of water a day. Scouring plants in Australia must treat water on their site until it’s safe to add to the sewerage system, or apply to the land. In Melbourne, all the scouring plants are city-based. This means they treat their water on site, then our excellent sewerage system takes over.

Water treatment

Water treatment

After scouring, fibre might be carbonised with sulphuric acid or bleached with hydrogen peroxide. Carbonising removes high levels of vegetable matter and softens the fibre. Bleaching brightens the colour of the wool. Not every plant undertakes these steps; I saw how they are done at Victorian Wool Processors.

acid bath and crushing machine

An acid bath (left), and crushing machine used during the carbonisation process

The final step is to dry the fibre, using drum rollers.

Drying tube

Drying tube

Environmental impact

Scouring has a big environmental impact. It uses large amounts of water (whether it is performed at home or commercially). Depending on the type of wool and equipment used, typically 8-20 litres of effluent liquids are created per 1kg of greasy wool. In some ways a commercial system is preferable, because it can recycle its water several times before disposal.

Waste water is high in potassium and nutrients, particularly nitrogen (although not always in a form accessible to plants). A consideration for Melbourne is that scouring works best with soft water. Our drinking water is soft, but our bore water (which local scouring plants may access as well) is hard. It’s possible to soften water, but those additives pose disposal challenges.

Electricity use is high if heat or extraction processes are applied. There are also many biological and chemical contaminants to deal with. The biological contaminants (like grease and weed seeds) often arrive with fibre from the farm. They need to be dealt with at the scouring disposal stage. The chemical contaminants also arrive direct from the farm (like inorganic fertilisers or biodegradable pesticides), or are added during cleaning (like detergents and bleaches). Sodium sulphate, a byproduct of carbonising, needs proper treatment before application to the land.

Dirt collected for fertiliser

Solid waste collected for fertiliser

The (old) Australian scouring effluent standards say that these contaminants can have a big environmental impact, but this can be mitigated with good management. The Global Organic Textile Standard prohibits use of endocrine disrupters (which can be found in detergents) and phosphates. It restricts bleaches to oxygen bleaches only. There’s a lot more detail in these standards that I can’t comprehend. I’d love to have someone’s more educated view on these documents and what they mean for this process.

What does this mean for consumers?

Washing and scouring fibres is a part of clothing manufacture. Few of our animal fibre clothes will skip this process. While fibres like alpaca and goat don’t need intensive scouring, in Australia they’re often processed like wool so the difference in impact is negligible. Even processing fibre at home will still use a significant amount of water, which needs to be disposed of appropriately.

A proactive approach could be to remember that scouring is a process we shouldn’t approach lightly. Let’s use it when we need something new, but try to reduce how often that happens.

Where does scouring happen in Melbourne?

EP Robinson, Geelong

Velieris, Braybrook, Melbourne

Victoria Wool Processers, Laverton North, Melbourne

edited on 11/1/16 to add details about disease risk in raw wool


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!


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!