local wool

Kylie Gusset is a Melbourne based yarn and fibre nut who is a fully paid up member of the Solidarity League of Creative Women Distracted By Oooohh! Shiny! She has a background in studio textiles from RMIT, and has contributed to Yarn Magazine, Knitters Review, and Entangled. 

Today she is here to tell us about issue that affects most crafters, and almost certainly anyone involved in working with wool – whether you knit, crochet, felt, or do something else with the end product of our sheepy pals. TON OF WOOL is her initiative aiming for change, and enabling sheep to skein processing of rare wool within Australia. 

Let me tell you a story about wool.

Before I get started though, there’s a couple of other stories that I need to tell you about: garlic and strawberries. It will all make sense in the end, I promise.

Once upon a time, I bought those little cheap mesh baggies of white garlic cloves and added them to pretty much everything savory without a second thought. Then I found out that those cheap garlics come at a price. They’re imported from China, grown in sewage, covered in chemicals to stop them rotting, then onsold (in Australia and elsewhere), often a year after harvest.*

There’s an icecream company** in the USA who are currently under fire from the US health department because they use real food – that is, real strawberries and real dairy products. What does the US health department want them to use? Corn syrup, and a fake processed mix. The freaking health department.

It’s a similar story with wool…

Around 80% of the annual Australian wool clip is shipped to China for scouring. What happens to this wool over in China? I don’t know. Given what happens to garlic, and we ingest that, it scares me. Labelling regulations in Australia for wool don’t require us to know if something has left the country before it has been sold. Companies such as Australian Country Spinners, Bendigo Woollen Mills and Heirloom are then able to say that their wool is “Australian Grown & Spun” and can leave out the chinese scouring information.

Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) – they have no interest in supporting local enterprise***. It’s white merino, or nothing. Reading their press releases is not unlike reading the Onion, and is able to give the same entertainment value. A major pat on the back to the Wool Carbon Alliance back in 2009, who pimped wool as the fibre of choice for attendees of the United Nations Climate Change Conference:  “Wool suits, jackets and coats can all be seen at the conference… with the capacity to reduce our reliance on heating from fossil fuels.” Of course, what the press release declines to mention is the amount of fossil fuels needed to transport and process wool in order to create those suits, jackets and coats.

Over 60 million tonnes of lanolin, dirt, sheep dung, and all the other stuff that gets removed in the sheep fleece washing process (known as scouring) is shipped to China each year, using fossil fuels. Why? It’s cheaper to scour in China. Scouring in China also ensures that the guys at the top of the food chain in the wool industry are taken care of – it’s like if you’re in the business of selling handmade bags, if you have five to sell, your options of selling into various places might be limited. If you have five thousand, it’s a different story.

If you’re a small operator, or you have sheep that aren’t white merino, you, my friend, have a real problem. To cut a long story short, the only place that I know of in Australia who is currently able to knowledgeably scour wool can do a minimum of a ton (preferably after some talking down from their usual minimum of 2 tons). For a small scale farmer, coming up with around 300 fleeces, and the $30,000 (and upwards) to process that amount after breeding, feeding, and general care of sheep is a huge ask. While there’s some who do, such as Wendy Dennis and Bennett and Gregor, their options for processing shrink each year.

I’ve started an initiative online, and time is running out.

If only it were true that there was plenty of Australian wool. As an indie dyer, sourcing the best that I can find in terms of raw materials has always been a major part of what I do. In terms of purchasing merino yarn that hasn’t left the country, I wasn’t able to find anything that I’d be happy dyeing and selling. However there was the awesome choice of Woolganics, who have an amazing organic yarn that is spun in New Zealand because we don’t have organic manufacturing available in Australia. Thing is, as a dyer, I’m a tad hamstrung – due to rising wool prices, Woolganics is no longer offering wholesale.

I’m not encouraging a boycott of big companies, or suggesting that every single yarn that goes through china is the work of satan. Instead, I’m encouraging the wonders of a balanced diet with yarn, just like you would food. Overdone it on the junk food? Might be an idea to take a break from the donuts and up your intake of fruit and veg. Think farmers markets are way too expensive? Don’t feel that you have to spend your complete weekly food budget – just set a target of X amount of dollars, and buy the rest elsewhere.

Similarly, if you haven’t spent a cent in a local yarn store, yet rely on their stock to check how those online colors fare in real life, it might be time to give a little back. There’s no harm in letting them know that you’re prepared to pay more for something that hasn’t left the country, either. It’s time to support local initiatives while you still can.

Help out with Kylie’s TON OF WOOL initiative aiming for change, and enabling sheep to skein processing of rare wool within Australia. 

*Link to article on Chinese garlic

**the icecream company is nicecream. Read about their story here, and check out their kickstarter project.

***There’s a real problem with the current Australian wool industry, and the sooner it gets resolved, the better. Charles Massy has done an incredible job in outlining exactly where AWI (Australian Wool Innovation) have been pulling the wool over people’s eyes.