We make seriously good wool, but what happens to it is akin to top winemakers selling their booze as cleanskins. Should we feel sheepish about missing out on a major branding opportunity?
Midlands merino stud breeder Georgina Wallace has just won the grand champion title in the Australian Fleece Competition in Bendigo for the second time in three years. Only two others in the country have won twice. Wallace and husband Hamish won with a score of 97.1 out of 100 – the highest in the show’s history. “We’re a small fish in a big pond,” she says. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think we could be first in class again.”
With Tasmania winning five of the six major awards, you get the feeling there’s a big story to tell: Tasmanian superfine wool growers are consistently producing Australia’s finest. So why is it so unusual to see the premium-quality wool that is shorn here being branded Tasmanian – and worn?
We’re in the kitchen at Trefusis, the 1830s merino stud south of Ross where Wallace grew up learning about sheep at father Jim McEwan’s side. In 1988, he set the world-record price for superfine wool – at 32,000 cents a kilogram – and won the Ermenegildo Zegna trophy 15 times for fleeces he produced.
“Buyers like Tasmanian wool,” Wallace says. “It’s a niche product to market. Compared with mainland wool, it’s clean, green, with low VM [vegetable matter].” Wallace says this is because the seasons here are fairly even (although it’s been tricky of late, forcing them to make changes). But she says wool grown here tends towards super or extra fine, and has outstanding tensile strength, which means it is more suitable for spinning into cloth.
While Trefusis is focused on breeding stud merino rams for clients rather than the maker end, Wallace believes Tasmania is in the box seat to take advantage of the current fashion trend to market wool direct to customers. While she hangs on to her champion fleeces so she can show them, most Tasmanian fleeces are sold at auction. To a premium winemaker, this is like pouring grapes grown in Tasmanian vineyards into cleanskins to be marketed as “Australian wine”.
Alistair Calvert, the state wool manager at Roberts Ltd Hobart, drives the agricultural services company’s Tasmanian merino campaign, which he says has “ramped up over the past 18 months”, being registered in jurisdictions around the world. He says Tasmania produced 52,000 farm bales last season, 90 per cent to 95 per cent of which were sold at auction – a statistic that should shriek “branding opportunity”.
While not being critical of the auction system (he says it’s a transparent way of exchanging ownership), Calvert says that with value-adding now the name of the game, it’s time Tasmania took back control. Market analysts say the time is right with a clear push by consumers to understand where the product comes from and how it’s produced. We need to tell our Tasmanian story to the world.
“We’re hearing this all the time in food, and now it’s coming through to fibre. It’s a real shift,” Calvert says. “I’ve just had the managing director of one of the world’s largest, French-based top makers here in Tassie. He’s telling us we need to increase the value of the product – to stop dealing with it as a commodity and focus on the niche, high-end, natural fibre instead.”
Nick Bradford, wool fashion industry stalwart and owner of Nundle Woollen Mill in north-west NSW, agrees, but says it’s hard to differentiate yourself. He has worked in Italy selling wool to top makers and spinners, and says you need to start with the designer. “They have to love Tasmanian merino and want it in their collection, and then they will push it down the line to the spinner,” he says.
But it’s an uphill battle. Bradford says that while working in Europe he visited a suiting shop in Germany. “They think New Zealand grows the best merino in the world and yet the bulk comes from Australia, and NZ merino has grown quickly using genetics from Australia,” he says.
“I could not turn him around. And that’s what it’s all about. Someone had been in his ear … we need to start telling our own stories. Tasmania could be telling a real story of its own – that there is no other area in the world where sheep graze like they do in Tasmania. You don’t need to overthink it, or complicate it, or turn it into a mystery. There is nothing like Tasmanian merino. So come up with 30 reasons why there is no wool in the world like it.”
It’s also never been a better time, in recent history, in terms of price. In the past year, Australian wool prices have risen to heights “not seen in decades” and are expected to remain strong on the back of an export boom, according to Rural Bank’s 2017 Australian Wool Annual Review. Australia produces about a quarter of the world’s wool production, with 75 per cent of wool exports destined for a growing Chinese market.