Ewe beauty

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.

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