Last Saturday, our family made the annual pilgrimage to Bendigo for the Australian Sheep and Wool Show. It was a fine winter day, chill but sunny. Bendigo was looking majestic and festively woolly.
The Wool Show was here.
The Wool Show advertises itself as ‘the biggest of its kind in the world’. I am not really sure what that means…the most sheep perhaps or the biggest show that has sheep, shearing and wool craft all together…mmm, not sure. Perhaps someone else knows? Anyway, it has been going a long time, continuously since 1877!
Certainly, there is a lot to see if you like sheep or wool. There is sheep showing with many breeds represented including Merino, Polwarth, Corridale, Poll Dorset, Dorper, White Suffolk, Dorset Downs, Romney, Drysdale, Dorset Horn, Hampshire Downs, Ryeland, Perendale, East Friesian, Shropshire, Border Leicester, English Leicester and Cheviot.
The Australian Fleece Competition and Black and Coloured Competition also take place during the show. There is also the North Central Victorian Sports Shears Shearing and Wool Handling Competition, Sheep Dog trials and a ram sale.
The Wool Show also includes a Wool Craft competition with a variety of classes including handspinning, weaving, felting, knitting and crochet using handspun and commercial yarns. Within the Wool Craft sheds you can see lots of folks demonstrating wool crafts including feltmakers, machine knitters, spinners and weavers. There are fashion shows featuring woollen garments and everything on sale including socks, sheepskin products, buttons, mobile sheep dips, spinning wheels, sheep races, BBQs, pocket knives and shoe polish.
And of course there is yarn for sale. Lots and lots of yarn.
You could just go crazy so I think it helps to have a plan. This year I decided I had enough fleeces but I wanted to buy breed specific Australian grown and spun yarn. What I noticed however, as I foraged amongst the stalls, was the abundance of overseas grown wool, dyed in Australia. Dyers talked about how hard it was to source Australian grown and spun yarn particularly in fingering (4ply) and laceweights. Gin and Tonic Yarns source their merino in Australia but have to send the fibre to the UK and US for spinning.
Without exception, all the farmer/yarn producers I spoke to were having to send their fibre overseas for spinning. Mosely Park used to get their wool spun at a mill just outside Bendigo which has now closed down. Jan was selling her last stocks of the Australian spun yarn. Tarndie Wool used to get their Polwarth fibre spun in Geelong, however this mill has since closed down and now the fibre is sent to NZ. Bennett and Gregor used to get their Merino/Corridale coloured fleece spun in Kyneton however since the closure of that mill too, they must send the fibre to NZ. Similarly, Fairfield Finns and Fibre Naturally must send their sheep fleeces to NZ for spinning.
Why is it that NZ, with much less population than us, can still maintain mills that cater to small farmers? Is this about government support and encouragement? Sending fibre overseas for processing adds to the carbon footprint of the end product and undermines the hard work farmers put in to creating and marketing a local product. It also adds to the costs and admistrative hassle of producing yarn. To send fibre to New Zealand, the wool must be scoured to high temperatures to ensure that it will not harbour disease in order to pass through customs.
Only the alpaca fibre seemed to be locally spun at small mills. Because alpaca fibre is not greasy, it is a simpler, less costly operation.
Please do love your local farmer/yarn producers, seek them out and buy from them. Even if their on-line shop looks a bit empty, check back often. These folks are not yarn supermarkets but the actual people taking care of the sheep who are growing that yarn.
I also noticed an increasing number of yarns and fibre being labelled according to breed. Mosely Park, Ixchel, Kathy’s Fibres and Gin and Tonic Yarns were a few sellers with great breed specific labelling.
The other thing I noticed was a new focus on conservation and heritage based farming practices as part of the yarn story. Gin and Tonic Yarns source their wool directly from New Merino farms. New Merino is a certification scheme that ensures that sheep farms are managed for sustainablity and animal welfare principles. Similarly Kathy’s Fibres featured White Gum merino, a Tasmanian sheep farm run on conservation principles. Ixchel were selling rare breed Churro fibre from the Navaho Sheep Project and fibre from rare Norwegian sheep breed Gra Troender.
I also counted three stalls selling India Flint style eco dyed merino garments.
Every year I go to the Wool Show, it seems that the Wool Craft sellers get pushed further and further into the dark galvanised iron sheds away from the animals and the rest of the show. It is so dark in the these sheds, you have to take yarn outside to see it properly. Fairfield Finns moved their stall to the Finn sheep tent and it was a revelation. The tent was light and the Finn fleeces, fibre, yarn and knitted products stood alongside the lovely Finn sheep. The President of the Finn Association was there and the tent presented a full circle from animal to farmer to knitter.
Next post, I will share my Wool Show treasures with you. In the meantime, if you went to the Wool Show, I’d be keen to hear your thoughts.