#11: LITCHFIELD WOOL
Just east of the Snowy Mountains in Southern NSW lies the Monaro, an ancient highland area famous for frost-covered hills, rugged peaks and for producing some of the world’s finest Merino wool.
We caught up with Gordon Litchfield and Tash Kessler at their wool store in Cooma to find out a little more about wool’s journey from sheep to garment.
Locally Made: Your family have been in the wool business down here for years!
Gordon: Yeah, for five generations. The Hazeldean stud goes back to 1865. My family had a large farm out here and there are still plenty of the other parts of the family who produce a lot of wool. Then I ended up in here.
LM: Is the wool here pure Merino?
Gordon: The Merino is your main apparel wool. Your crossbred wool goes to the cheaper, K-mart jumper, so to speak. You can just about feel it in the pilling and the quality of the wool. What they do is they'll cross a Border Leicester with a Merino, so then you've got meat sheep wool. The meat sheep is where your best lamb chops come from and your worst wool, but your finest wool comes from pure Merino. This is predominately a wool-producing area around here, the Monaro and Yass and the tablelands. The Tasmanians get seriously fine wool down to 10 micron. You can make angel's underpants out of that!
LM: So for all the lambs bred for meat, their wool gets used as well?
Gordon: It varies. What we call cross-bred - a pure Merino crossed with a British breed meat sheep - that wool varies from 25-26 micron right out to 40. Then we've had an introduction of the South African sheep in the last ten to fifteen years, which are bred for pure meat. They actually don't produce wool, they produce medullated fibre. That is something that won't take dye, like nylon or polypropylene or something like that. They're great meat sheep, very popular in the Western country, in the arid parts, but there are serious contamination problems in the Merino industry, so we won't have them in store.
LM: Are Australians big consumers of wool, or is there a large export market?
Gordon: It’s more international, because our market here is so small. At the end of the day, we don't consume a lot of wool. From a parochial point of view you can say that's a pity, but unless you live in Cooma or maybe in Melbourne some days a week, or for the handful of people who go skiing, we're not a great market. It's more in the activewear, that's where the market is changing, in sports and casual wear.
Tash: It is becoming more popular in Australia, but you only need one woollen jumper and it will last you a lifetime. That's the best thing about wool, it lasts a lot longer than any other fibre. The way of the world getting greener and cleaner as well, wanting renewable products where you're not just a throwaway society, wool has a massive play in that sense.
Gordon: We don't seem to be getting the message across well enough just how clean and green it is. Wool is one hundred percent biodegradable. I think it was Australian Wool Innovation in the last year or two, they literally buried everything. They put acrylics with all the synthetics and the cottons and wool and buried them in the ground. With the wool garments, the only thing left was the buttons - and in a very short time. So wool will actually one hundred percent go back to where it came from.
LM: How does wool compare to other natural fibres, such as cotton, in that sense?
Gordon: Cotton takes a lot longer. It is biodegradable, but nowhere near as quick as wool.
Tash: The growing of wool is a lot greener than the growing of cotton. Cotton needs a lot more chemical to reduce the weeds in the paddocks and fields. They use a lot of water. Whereas with sheep, they eat grass, they drink once a day.
Gordon: There's very little chemical with sheep, depending where you are; the further West you are there's virtually no chemical. I mean, the sheep will be drenched a couple of times a year for worms and parasites and there are blowfly treatments which are fairly heavily controlled, but that's about it. There's very little in it.
LM: I know mulesing is controversial.
Gordon: Yeah. Mulesing is removing a bit of skin around the backside because you can get flystrike in the folds. It’s not something people want to do for choice, but if you could see what happens to a sheep with flystrike, it is the cruelest thing you have ever seen. Maggots eating a sheep alive. I've seen plenty of it. So mulesing removes the first layer of skin and they use an instant anaesthetic on it, we now have a pre-op. There are people focusing on non-mulesing but not all sheep breeds can handle that. It's only once a year, and there's a lot of misinformation on it. Animal welfare is always going to be an issue, in any industry.
LM: So here at your wool shop we’re somewhere in the middle of the process, between the farm and the garment. Is it a long journey?
Tash: There is a statistic that wool is handled from the beginning to the end product one hundred and sixty-six times, to get it all the way through the process, starting with it coming off the sheep's back to the consumer purchasing it.
Gordon: The process is quite long. If you're a fat lamb producer, it's paddock-to-plate. Wool could leave here and be processed in China in two weeks or be processed in eighteen months time.
LM: Can you talk us through the paddock-to-plate equivalent for wool?
Gordon: A lot is done in the shearing shed. There's a wool classer, so every fleece is thrown across the table and the edges are skirted off. The belly wool has the most seed in it, because the belly is close to the ground. The classer looks for consistent length and tests what the tensile strength is. We class into age groups, because the younger sheep will be finer and as the sheep gets older the micron increases. With the older sheep there's a slightly greater chance of dark fibres. If they haven't been crushed - which is cleaned around the bum - within 3 months, it will increase the chance of dark fibre.
LM: Is that dark fibre not as desirable?
Gordon: Well, you can't dye it white, but you can dye it blue.
Tash: If you had a dark fibre in your top it would stand out and you’d see a nice long black fibre. So, the wool is shorn in the shed, put into a bale, which is then sold as a raw product at the auction to then be put in container to be shipped and processed. We test the wool here with a core sample that pretty much gives us the results of the wool and micron, the yield and the strength.
Gordon: Do you want to have a look?
LM: Yes, definitely!
Gordon: So to give you a bit of an idea, they bring all the wool to us and we reclass the wool here into all these different lines and grades of wool. Here's your meat sheep we were talking about. If you look at a piece of wool, the finer that crimp is, that gives you the first hint how soft it's going to be and how fine it will be. You can feel it, this is thirty-something micron. It's not worth a lot of money, it’s from your general cross-bred sheep. Feel that, it's scratchy.
LM: Oh yeah, it’s quite rough.
Gordon: Here's some Merino, just close your eyes and feel those two. A good classer always needs to have their sleeves up, for their senses. I worked with an old bloke in Tassie who was one of the greatest wool men ever. We'd go into the sheds buying wool and I used to always joke about how he'd smell the wool. But it's the softest bit of skin on your nose that picks up the barbs. No one could understand, he wasn't smelling it, just feeling it, and he could pick the micron yield like you couldn't believe!
Gordon: So, they wash the core sample under five different processes as we don't know which mill will be using it. So that will give you all the different projected clean weights. We do a breakdown of the vegetable matter in it, because different seeds comb differently. It takes more work to get a burr versus a grass seed out and that will affect the length the wool will be later on. Then we do a micron test which is how fine the individual fibre is. We test how long it is, the greasy length, and the tensile strength, where it breaks at the top, middle or bottom.
LM: What does the point where it breaks say about the wool?
Gordon: It will make a difference to the final ‘top’ length, because of how much damage it has taken to take the seed out with combing. I'll show you - see this one? All that fleece will probably break towards the top, so there you can see the stress point over the twelve months for that sheep. She might have had a lamb then. At a stress point, they'll stop growing wool.
LM: Wow, so just looking at the wool you can pinpoint when she’s had a lamb?
Gordon: Yep, we can identify where the wool was at it's weakest point and we can predict exactly what length they will get. If it's had a really good year and an even nutrition point, the wool will spin better. Nutrition is not as much of an issue when the season gets tight, moreso when it gets good. You don't get a drought overnight, but when you get a lot of rain all of a sudden and the feed comes away it's like a bad curry, goes straight through them, and that will break the wool.
LM: Is drought is a big challenge for farmers in this area?
Gordon: Managing seasons, yes, but we're very good at it, we’ve been doing it for one hundred and fifty years or more. So you don't just put a mob of sheep in a paddock and get them twelve months later.
LM: So what’s the next from here?
Tash: There's an open cry auction. There'll be about four to five rows of buyers buying for different companies. Gordon or I or Thomas in Yass go to every auction sale with a catalogue. We appraise the wool and put a valuation on it.
Gordon: Wool leaves here in greasy form and they then scour it. That's where your lanolin comes from, once it's all scoured out. Lanolin is pure wool grease and very good for you, and it's one hundred percent natural.
LM: Where does the scouring happen, is that done in Australia?
Gordon: We used to have scourers here in Goulburn, but it closed because of competition. Everyone said we should be opening one here, but if you want to do that you have to close another one in the world. This one at Goulburn was very efficient with very good recycling of water. Some years ago wool scouring was quite dirty, but that has been fixed dramatically. It's still nothing like what goes into cotton. Quite often, wool will get scoured and partly processed in China and then comes back.
Gordon: Once it's scoured, it's beautiful. Once you wash the grease out of it, you think, wow! It takes more processing to get all the burrs out, but the more processing the more damaged the fibres. Stains, like urine stains or stains around the bum, that will go into a darker fibre. With the really heavy wools with extreme vegetable matter and burr, they carbonise it to get the burr out of it. But there's not a piece of wool in the shop that doesn't get used, even the dags. Here are your good old merino dags!
LM: Beautiful! So what will these be used for?
Gordon: They'll be crushed and you'll get about twenty to thirty percent back. It comes out green, it's just manure. We'll knock off sixty bales a year and that will go to a crusher.
Tash: All of this has a purpose, it may be ugly but it will all get used. A lot of this will all go to being carpet or insulation.
Gordon: The second cuts that fall on the floor, that's what you make your baseball caps and things out of. Once the wool has been scoured, it's spun into what is called a wool ‘top’.
LM: So the top is all those cleaned fibres together?
Tash: They've all been woven and lengthened; it pulls and twists together.
Gordon: Then it will go to the next process which is spinning and weaving. Sometimes they'll dye tops first, sometimes they'll wait til they get it to a yarn.
LM: Is much, if any, of the processing still done in Australia?
Gordon: Michelle's in Adelaide are still getting everything done here, they're a five generation family, but that's not so much apparel wool.
Tash: I've also seen some shops that are selling tops straight to knitters. You know the new trend with a huge weave? It's not as soft but it’s the exact top size.
Gordon: The problem with hand spinners is, they're beautiful, but you can't hand spin fine merino wool, it's too hard. They'll actually use cross bred or 25- 26 micron wool. We get overgrown fleeces sometime where the sheep hasn't been shorn, it's disappeared in the bush and missed it's shearing so the wool is long and we give that to the hand spinners. They'll take it greasy and wash and comb it themselves. The Chinese are very good at it, but traditionally, the best spinners are the Italians.
LM: Where does your wool typically go once it’s auctioned?
Gordon: Everyone has this view that all the wool is going to China. It's not all going to China, the Italians are the spenders. The Italians will quite often have the first stage processing done in China, but then it will be spun in Italy - they are the greatest weavers. This whole village has been there for six generations, so there's a lot of that tradition.
LM: Many people want to know the journey of seed - or sheep - to the garment they are purchasing. Is it possible to trace wool back to where it came from?
Gordon: A lot goes from the paddock through to the end use, but because textiles is such a big game, everyone is looking for traceability and we're doing a bit more of it, literally from garment back to farm. It’s hard work, because it might only be eight bales produced in one hundred from one particular farm, but there is more traceability happening in wool. We've just done something with Devold, a Norwegian outdoor company that use our wool. They're trying to get to a point where they can trace where the wool has been produced from three or four different growers. To trace from an individual sheep to a garment, you'd have to spin it by hand. We're doing fifty to sixty bales, minimum, at a time.
Tash: There are some labels out at the moment which will show a map of Australia with the region that the wool came from. They'll list the actual properties.
Gordon: We did one for Snowgums a while ago, they do outdoor wear. They went to AWI and said, we'd like to know where this wool came from. AWI said, show us the consignment of wool you've bought. See, the buyer will get a certificate with those bales, that will have the brand, description and the area it came from for that particular lot. So the guy at AWI said, well I can tell you straightaway where that came from, Gordon Litchfield sells that! It was a well known Monaro brand, from the Sherlock family here. Suited him down to the ground because his place was covered in snow gums! So yeah, it's identifiable, very much so.
LM: I think it's incredible, when you say it could have been handled one hundred and sixty-six times, that you can still know what region it comes from.
Tash: It's pretty amazing. We actually have New England Wool who is a big Italian buyer, who has developed a scheme that is pretty much doing traceability from the sheep's back to garment. The growers have to sign up to it and be transparent in what they do in their processes and how they conduct their farming. As Gordon always says, if you don't look after your sheep, you don't get a good end product. The Monaro sheep growers are so passionate about what they do.
Gordon: Yes, and that’s right down to having available water, feed, how they're treated, the whole thing. Animal welfare is always putting the pressure on every industry, but the bottom line is, if you don't look after your animal, they don't produce the product. You can't flog them to the ground, because they won't grow wool. All it needs is the slightest stress and they stop growing wool. When a ewe has a lamb, she'll always have a bit of a lambing break for obvious reasons; it's a pretty stressful time for the old girl! They have to have consistent feed. As soon as the season's dry, supplementary feeding happens all the time. That's why they produce so much wool. Looking after the animal and the income go hand in hand; that's how you make the money, by having the animal at peak condition.
You can find more information about Litchfield Wool at hazeldean.com.au
Header photograph by Jessica Hamilton