Sheep, sheep everywhere but not a lot to knit

June 28, 2014

Now don’t freak out, this is a longish post, I’ve been a’readin’ and a’thinkin’…just get a cup of tea.

People who are not from Australia, often assume that because we are renown for producing fine merino, we must be a nation of knitters and spinners.  Unfortunately, this is not so.  Australia is no Iceland that sells local, pure wool yarn at the petrol station and supermarket.

You don’t always find Australian (grown, processed and spun in Australia) yarn at your local yarn store (if you are lucky enough to have one of those) and it is mostly fairly standard, super processed and not particularly exciting. Often, Australian grown wool has travelled to China or Italy and back before we can buy it. Mostly, you don’t even see sheep, except in the distance. Flocks commonly number in the thousands and are managed over vast ranges. The Merino sheep has so dominated Australian popular knowledge of wool, it didn’t even occur to me that there could be other kinds of sheep until my thirties!

I have often wondered why this is the case.  Whilst it certainly has a lot to do with our small population and the decline in wool farming in 1990s, you could argue that the paucity of local wool products was largely set in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries through a range of historical events.

404391-james-cookAn artist’s sketch of Captain James Cook and botanist Joseph Banks raising the British flag at Botany Bay in 1770. Source: The Australian

Australia was formally ‘discovered’ by Captain Cook in 1770 for Britain. Despite being occupied by people for over forty thousand years, Australia was declared terra nullius, an empty land. This legal convenience meant that the Aboriginal owners of the Australia, could have their land stolen with impunity without any legal (in the British system) need to treat with the original owners.

At first, Australia was used as a prison colony, a place for disposing of large numbers of people Britain didn’t want, from murderers to union organisers, to starving people stealing bread.

In the early years of Occupation, Australia was never intended to become a wool producer. This happened largely by accident, through experiments by local farmers and convict shepherds.  It was originally thought that the new colony would supply its clothing requirements with a flax industry using New Zealand flax.

Unfortunately, European flax (Linum usitatissimum) is an entirely different species to New Zealand flax, (Phormium tenx and Phormium colensoi). New Zealand flax makes great rope and supplying naval ropes was a significant New Zealand industry until the 1930s.  Even when the right variety was tried, attempts to produce linen for the new colony were not particularly successful and the government began looking to wool production as a way to address the paucity of clothing.

800px-Macarthur_stamp_sheep_1934An Australian stamp commemorating the centenary of the death of Macarthur in 1934, image from Wikipedia

At school, we were always taught that Australia rode on the back of a sheep and that Macarthur was the father of the Australian wool industry.  The common mythos says that he bred up pure Spanish merinos that he received from George III to build the flocks of the new colony to a size that could supply Britain with all its woolly needs.

Australian wool historians argue that the story was more complex, and much cross breeding went on in the early years of European occupation of Australia to breed a sheep that could survive, breed at a good rate and be useful for meat and wool. The first sheep in Australia were bred for mutton and their fleece was very poor.  Over time, by breeding sheep brought from Africa’s Cape and India to Spanish merinos, fleece quality improved.

Whilst Australia did eventually have woollen mills for processing wool and turning into cloth, the bulk of the wool clip has always been sent overseas for processing and imported back as cloth. Significantly, the Australian wool industry developed parallel to the industrialisation of wool processing and we have never really had a significant cultural tradition of cottage spinning and weaving.  Australian sheep fed the English factories and kept Britain competing with the United States in woollen cloth. Charles Massey refers to the Merino as the first animal genetically modified to suit industrial machines.  With its long staple length, strength and fineness, Australian Merino was well suited to industrial spinning and weaving.

800px-Victoria_Mills,_Bolton._Botany_Wool_Mill_TM65Victoria Mills, Bolton, UK, image from Wikipedia Commons

In the early part of the eighteenth century, sheep farmers experimented with different kinds of country to run sheep in. In Tasmania, early sheep farmers used fire technology learned from Aboriginal land owners to maintain their sheep runs.  Aboriginal people have routinely used small burns to regenerate grasslands to preference grazing marsupials and thus increase the capacity of traditional hunting grounds. Early sheep farmers learned this method and used to fire the grasslands regularly every three to seven years to keep down inedible scrub and increase edible grasses. Researchers can actually read the burning history of the landscape through tree rings!

Major wars were fought between the traditional land owners and the new occupiers between 1820 and 1830 over these land grabs in Tasmanian. Similar points of tension and conflict arose on the mainland as European sheep farmers extended their holdings.

The first few decades were spent breeding and improving flocks and they were managed in much the same ways as in Britain, with shepherds tending flocks. Then we had the Gold Rush in 1851 and men left the land, schools and offices to make it rich in Ballarat. Suddenly, there was a massive labour shortage and a lot of sheep.

With no labour, fences were used to enclose sheep in vast runs.  Shepherding never returned to Australia and we got really good at building fences. Museum Victoria has an extraordinary collection of barbed wire, including many imported from the United States.  In the 1880s, devices such as, the Walker Wire Strainer gained huge popularity. The wire strainer could be incorporated into a fence and left there, boundary riders periodically checking and re tensioning wire fences to keep sheep secure.  Fencing paddocks became the preferred option for farmers as it was cheaper than employing shepherds to tend free roaming flocks and fences enabled farmers to separate stock for breeding purposes, decreased mortality rates and increased fleece condition.

IMG_3055Advertisement from the Australasian, 1886

George Fairbain (1816 – 1895) was a sheep farmer near Larra near Geelong and ran a million sheep. He wrote of the Walker Wire Strainer,

‘I consider it a very great advantage that it remains in the fence, requiring only a small steel rod about a foot long as the lever to be carried to strain a slack wire at any time, so that boundary riders have no excuse for the fencing not being always kept in perfect order. It not only saves straining post [s], but quickens the process of erecting wire fences and is thoroughly efficient and economical.’

As stock numbers increased, so did disease and parasites. Scab and ticks were treated by shepherds individually and laboriously. In the early 1840s, pastoralist and explorer William Lockhart Morton (1820 – 98), a former Scottish engineer, invented the sheep dip.  The sheep dip was a narrow trench or container full of a chemical solution to kill parasites and infection. The sheep were driven through, fully immersing themselves and then scrambled out the other side.  The sheep dip enabled thousands of sheep to be treated for scab in a single day.  Just in time for the Gold Rush!

building sheep dip nsw libBuilding a ‘plunge dip’ on “Langi” for dipping sheep – Reefton, NSW 1938, with permission from NSW State Library

William also invented the drafting gate, a swinging gate and wooden race system that enabled just two people to sort thousands of sheep.  Prior to this, shepherds literally handled every sheep to be sorted, lifting and throwing sheep into pens. Hand drafting was slow and resulted in many injuries both the sheep and shepherd.  The drafting gate, developed through the 1840s, transformed sheep handling and permitted flocks to keep expanding despite the massive loss of labour experienced during the Gold Rush.

sheep drafting 2 nsw libSheep drafting, Scheyville Farm 1939, with permission from the NSW State Library. You can see the swing gate being worked by one man in the bottom right corner.

Historical events as disparate as, but not limited to,  the declaration of terra nullius, the failure of flax growing, successful breeding experiments and the thirst of British factories for wool, enabled wool to become a major primary export for Australia. The Gold Rush and the resulting labour shortfall and timely inventions such as wire for fencing, fence strainers, the sheep dip and drafting gate shaped the way Australia farmed sheep, exponentially increasing flock size.  They shaped the sheep themselves and they shaped the relationship of our wool to the rest of the world.  We produced and sold raw materials as colonies often do.

It seems that wool culture in Australia has always been dominated by export imperatives and mass scale to service those imperatives.  In the handmade community, there is an increasing desire to connect with the producers of raw materials and understand where things come from.  I feel it is harder to do that here. I can’t send a fleece off to be scoured and spun and it is hard to support micro yarn businesses using local fibre because they are so few. Maybe I could save my pocket money and buy a mythical mill and produce yarn from small breed-specific flocks that are managed sustainably, knitting could be made a compulsory subject in primary school, every residential block could have a communal weaving loom and you could check out spinning wheels from the library. I will also live in a cabin near a mountain in the city with a view over a lake.

Garran, J. and White, L., Merinos, myths and Macarthurs : Australian graziers and their sheep, 1788 – 1900, Australian National University Press, 1985

Kirkpatrick, J. and Kerry, B., People, Sheep and Nature Conservation – The Tasmanian Experience, CSIRO, 2007

Massy, Charles, Breaking the Sheep’s Back : the shocking true story of the decline and fall of the Australian wool industry, University of Queensland Press, 2011

Gerald Walsh, Pioneering Days – People and Innovations in Australia’s Rural Past, Allen and Unwin 1993