Today I thought I would write about the story of Australian yarn in the 21st century. It's a story I've been wanting to write about for a while because it's a really good story; a story of really good people and good wool and good community. Unfortunately, it's a story that we don't often hear. The doomsayers seem to have a louder voice; and unfortunately their voice, which seems to project straight from the 1990s, is full of misinformation.
Much of the stories of doom and gloom that plague the yarn industry hark back to last century. They are the stories of the last generation of the wool industry and yarn producers but yet it's a story that some sectors of the community seem intently keen to hold onto.
Here's the reality.
Yes, the Australian wool industry did crash and burn - badly. The yarn sector makes up a surprisingly small part of the wool industry as a whole, something I think knitters forget sometimes. Our best wool goes to make suits and clothing, not yarn. As much as knitters and crocheters don't like to hear it, the wool industry does not rely on knitting or crafts to keep it afloat. The percentage of the wool clip that ends up making yarn is pretty tiny actually. The "million dollar" bales or the 11 micron merino that brings in the big bucks is not going to end up as knitting yarn. Historically, about 90% of the Australian wool clip has been exported.
I'm going to distinguish here between the wool industry and the yarn industry, because they are two very different beasts. And the response of each industry to the decline has been quite different. In fact, what caused the initial decline is quite different for each sector.
There were a number of factors that contributed to the yarn industry decline. Firstly, the Australian government began reducing the tariff protection in the footwear, clothing and textile industries in the 1970s, which opened the way for cheap imports to increasingly flood the Australian market. Now we all know that this affected all sectors of manufacturing. Prior to the removal of the tariffs, many larger towns in Australia had mills - it's important to remember not all of these mills made yarn for the hand knitter, again this was a small proportion of the mills - many made fabrics, carpets, and yarns specifically for the manufacturing sector. It was this government decision that decimated our yarn production, resulting in the closure of at least 50 mills in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
Most Australians know that the wool industry in Australia collapsed in the 1990s leaving a huge stockpile of bales, 4.7 million to be precise. This was a result of government intervention in the wool price which led to an oversupply or stockpile that became unsustainable, and the eventual collapse of the reserve price scheme for wool in February 1991. Some say the wool industry has never recovered, since 1991 it has shrunk by 66 per cent. This was the incident that decimated the wool industry. There is no doubt about it, this was a crap time for Australian wool farmers - and it is in this period of time that the stories of farmers burying their clip comes from. It would be hard to draw a direct link between the stockpile of wool and the downturn of the yarn industry. Whilst both came about as a result of less demand for wool, too much wool certainly didn't cause the downturn in the yarn industry.
It was the tariff reductions coupled with the changing directions worldwide of trends, that put our yarn industry into serious damage control. In the 1980s people began to turn their back on handicrafts viewing them as old fashioned; a bit daggy. Pattern and yarn sales slumped and many local yarn stores closed. You could also for the first time, buy a machine-knitted jumper for cheaper than you could knit one.
It was the 1990s that really saw the use of synthetic fibres in manufacturing take off, it was also an era where fashion became a bit daggy (don't you love the irony in this) as we embraced tracksuits and sweatshirts (windcheaters), often made from brushed synthetics, as everyday wear.
Fast forward to the new century and the dawning of the internet changes everything. Along comes the "Handmade Revolution" and a new resurgence and interest in handicrafts is born. Knitting is very much at the forefront of this.
So what's happened in the Australian yarn industry since the start of the century and the dawning of the revolution?
The Australian yarn industry today is made up of two distinct sectors; the commercial and the independent. The commercial sector is dominated by Australian Country Spinners (Patons, Cleckheaton, Panda, Shepherd) and Bendigo Woollen Mills (also Heirloom). For big companies like these, the bottom dollar is revenue so increasingly their processing has been moved offshore to China where it is cheaper. Neither mill scour in Australia. Australian Country Spinners do minimal, if any, spinning in their Wangaratta Mill.
The independent sector is far more interesting, and I think far more reflective of where our yarn industry is headed. The internet has meant that many small scale yarn producers now have a much wider exposure and audience. There are a lot of great Australian yarn producers out there, but it seems there is a sector of the knitting community that fails to see them and instead perpetuates the stories of doom and gloom that belong to the last century. The reality is also, that up until quite recently when the issue of provenance became one of interest, most knitters weren't all that concerned with where their yarn came from and so were quite blissfully unaware of these producers' existence.
Since the start of the century, thanks mainly to alpaca farming there has been a growth in mini-mills in Australia. There has also been quite a number of sheep farmers quietly going about their business and getting their wool turned into yarn, and feeding their steady but loyal band of followers. These farmers are part of a growing group that realised the need for diversity within their industry, that are taking the road of adaption that is necessary for long-term survival that Tom Dennis of Tarndie talks about often. It is this adaption that saw Tom's parents, Wendy and Dave Dennis take on the breeding of coloured sheep and the production of both fleeces for spinners and yarn for knitters in the latter part of the twentieth century.
When provenance became a buzz word in Australia, instead of seeking out these small-scale producers, many knitters were quick to bemoan that you couldn't get Australian-made yarn; there was no such thing as yarn produced entirely here in Australia. Mills like Wool 2 Yarn who have been operating on the Mornington Peninsula since 2005, will tell you this simply isn't the case. Nundle Woollen Mill who produce woollen-spun yarn that is processed entirely in Australia would agree.
The fact is that you can purchase yarn that has been entirely made in Australia, and in all honesty, it's not that hard to find. Stroll the sheds at the Bendigo Wool Show and you'll find plenty.
We have seen mill closures since the advent of the "Handmade Revolution", most notably the CSIRO scouring, spinning and dyeing plant in Geelong as a result of a government decision in around 2012, but many many more mills have opened which surely speak volumes for the direction of the yarn industry. Adagio Mills in Orange, Great Ocean Road Woollen Mill, Boston Fine Fibres and Paddock to Ply are just a few of the new players on the block making a big name for themselves in our industry. In March this year, the Goldfields Mohair Farm, a mill outside of Bendigo, began its journey back to production after being sold off a few years ago.
These new players do bring a new enthusiasm to the industry. They have a natural inclination for creating community and working with local growers to create yarns and blends to feed any knitter's desire for good yarn. And they are producing good yarns, very good yarns.
What I do love about this industry in its time of resurgence and growth is the support and networking that is so evident; wool producers collaborating with mills, farmers turning to each other for support and advice in developing their own yarn lines, producers and mills engaging with the end users and designers, mills throwing open their doors and inviting the public in to learn about the process of creating yarn and have the opportunity to create their own yarns. Mill owners like Nick and Isabel from Great Ocean Road Woollen Mill speak openly about the struggle that goes into learning the ropes, they're not afraid to talk about the hard stuff - there are no secrets when you tour their mill. Similarly, yarn producers like White Gum Wool and Millpost Merino openly address the way they farm. Their innovative approaches to sheep farming are shining lights in an industry that still grapples with the mulesing question. Adagio Mill invited the community to help get them up and running through a crowd funding campaign, they shared every step of their journey from dream to reality with the public. This is an industry of transparency, one that is open to fresh ideas and innovations in order to move forward and one that through it's very nature, is seeking to embrace sustainability.
Currently, in Australia, Nundle Woollen Mill is the only yarn that is produced on a large-commercial scale entirely in Australia. That doesn't mean we don't have the capabilities and equipment to do so; we do. We just need the larger commercial arm of the yarn industry sector to become as forward thinking as the independent sector and offer commission spinning. This is the commonplace situation in New Zealand, where our independent producers such as Australian Organic Wool, Tarndie, White Gum Wool, Bellevue Wool and Millpost Merino, send their yarn for commercial-scale production.
You know, even if that doesn't happen, it doesn't matter. Our New Zealand cousins at Design Spun are doing a fabulous job of spinning our favourite yarn brands. We are so lucky to have such a growing offering of such gorgeous Australian grown yarns standing alongside the uniquely Australian-spun boutique yarns. It's an exciting time to be in Australian yarn.
As for the wool industry, incidentally things are good there too. Earlier this year the wool price reached its highest weekly closing level since the collapse of the Reserve Price Scheme in February 1991.
As consumers, I think it's time to let go of the negative stories of the 80s and 90s industry collapse. These are not the stories of the current generation and the current resurgence. We need to stop letting them define our industry and instead engage with the forward thinking producers of today who have a far happier tale to tell.
If you'd like to check out some more Australian yarns, there's an extensive and growing list here.
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Textile artist, knitwear designer and teacher.
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