Shear delight

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”.

Georgina Wallace, a two-time Australian Fleece Competition winner at the Australian Sheep and Wool Show in Bendigo, at her merino stud near Ross. Picture: CHLOE SMITH

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.

Holly, Nicola and Carl Mason, from Smitten Merino, which is based at Battery Point but is trying to crack the overseas market. Picture: LUKE BOWDEN

Tasmania has been good at growing the raw product since merinos were first brought here from Europe. Midlands’ merino, in particular, has been one of the best stories to tell, with five studs established here in the 1820s thanks to a drier climate more favourable to sheep.

Luxury Italian fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna recognised this reputation as far back as 1963 when it established the Zegna perpetual trophy for Tasmanian wool growers. The Zegna was awarded annually to the best superfine merino fleece until 2008. The trophy sits in a glass cabinet in the Tasmanian Wool Centre at Ross (opened in 1988 as a bicentennial project).

The museum/wool shop mainly services tourist clientele. If you’re looking to buy the Tasmanian brand of wool the Zegna was set up to reward, you’ll find popular sock brand Mongrel and satisfying balls of Nan Bray’s White Gum Wool, but no Tasmanian-branded clothing. Instead, references seem to lean towards the northern hemisphere, with posters advertising the global Campaign for Wool of which Prince Charles is patron.

Wallace repeats a neighbour’s quip that if there were no fences in Tasmania all the sheep would end up at Ross or nearby Tunbridge. But in the heartland of some of Australia’s best wool production there seems to be a disconnect when it comes to selling Tasmanian wool apparel.

In New Zealand, a quick internet search reveals merino brands including Untouched World’s luxury Ecopossum and washable Zque Merino (“easy care, easy wear and easy on the earth”) and Icebreaker (making garments for outdoor adventures from merino fibre since 1995, with stores throughout North America and Europe, promoting growers as “the true custodians of the land)”. So what are the opportunities for Tasmanian wool, and how can we grow our reputation?

Although there are small retailer designer/makers succeeding in manufacturing here (for example, Hobart’s Ally and Me and Launceston’s Spotted Quoll, set to open in Hobart), Bradford says manufacturing has long gone from the Australian landscape. “You cannot process wool in Australia,” he says. “If you’re going to go down that route, stop now. Australian-made? That boat sailed out of Australia 15 years ago. There is one commercial weaver left in Australia – that’s Waverley in Launceston. Lucky last. It can’t be done here. It’ll be hundreds of years before that returns because of the disparity in the costs of wages and energy between here and Asia, and all the OH&S hoops there are now.”

For Bradford it’s all about the sales channel. “Anyone can buy wool,” he says. “Not everyone can sell it.”

Alistair Calvert, the state wool manager for Roberts Ltd, in their wool store at Brighton. Picture: SAM ROSEWARNE

Not far from Trefusis, at Beaufront at Ross, fourth-generation sheep farmer Julian von Bibra is amused by “everyone suddenly discovering wool” when they’ve been doing it for 150 years.

“It’s the most old-fashioned industry in Tasmania,” he says, admitting it has had its moments, especially in the past decade with low superfine merino prices and a drought. “But we’ve stuck with it because it’s such a lovely thing. Everyone who wears wool enjoys it.”

This winter, Country Road produced a limited-edition polo using superfine merino wool sourced exclusively from Beaufront Station and milled at the famed Tollegno mill in Italy. Its provenance is marked on bespoke swing tags. Von Bibra says it took three years for the idea to come to fruition.

“Nothing happens in a hurry, but I never thought I’d end up wearing our own wool – it really is very satisfying,” he says. “Out here our main role is producing bales of wool and running sheep, we can sometimes forget the end use.” He says about a third of their wool from 30,000 sheep goes to Italy, and a proportion of this is branded Beaufront.

As with food, von Bibra recognises provenance has traction. He laughs when he recalls how his dad used to sit down at mealtime and say, “Apart from an onion given to us by a deer shooter, everything you’re eating we’ve grown ourselves”. “Well,” he says, “now we’re wearing our own wool.

“The crazier the world gets, the more people value something that is harvested sustainably off an animal and converted into something you can wear. The fashion industry is fickle – at the moment, they want a story – but wool is also a very good product.”

When it came to having a suit custom-made in Australia out of cloth milled in Italy from their superfine merino wool, von Bibra was ecstatic. “I cannot wear that suit and stay sober,” he says. “It is so exciting to put that on and know it’s made from wool we’ve grown – I always need a glass of champagne in my hand.

“People say, ‘You’re a cottage industry and you are outpricing yourselves’, but we’ve never got bogged down with price. It’s not why we’re in it. You’ve still got to have a business, but we don’t want to make polar fleeces for everyone. Selling your own wool is not all about price – as long as someone wears it.”

Wool grower Simon Cameron in his shearing shed at Kingston, in Conara. Picture: SAM ROSEWARNE

Kingston in the Northern Midlands is one farm that is successfully telling its story. Last year, The Channel was a digital ad campaign by Australian tailored menswear brand MJ Bale.

At a function put on by Italian fabric manufacturer Vitale Barberis Canonico, Matt Jensen (the MJ in the brand name) asked wool grower Simon Cameron about doing a line of suiting just from Kingston wool. After three years brewing the idea, he agreed to make a contribution back to the farm at Kingston (based on sales) for the management of its unique natural values.

“It’s an amazing project for a wool grower to be selected to have a product made just out of the wool they produce,” says Cameron, who is also Australian Superfine Wool Growers Association president.

Cameron says Jensen turned up at shearing in October with one of the suits made from Kingston wool. “It was an unbelievable experience in the shed,” he says. “The shearers were there, everyone knew this was the Holy Grail for a wool grower, to see a product just made out of your own stuff. Talk about traceability.”

For his part, Jensen promoted the range, organised the launch and made material available online. Male models came to Kingston and posed in the middle of a mob of sheep that produced the wool: The Kingston Collection was born.

Cameron says it’s only been going for one season but they’ve proven it can work with “quite a number of suits sold around Australia”. “For a long time we’ve had Cape Grim pies sold at Banjos,” he says. “There’s a story to what farmers do. You don’t hear about it because farmers don’t do that. But it does wonders for the product and gives people a sense of the passion behind it – and gives the consumer that link.”

Fourth-generation sheep farmer Julian von Bibra and wife Annabel in Country Road polos made from wool they produced at Beaufront Station at Ross. Picture: SAM ROSEWARNE

At Roberts, Calvert has high hopes but acknowledges taking back control is key. He says China has in the past been a big player in buying five or 10 bales and calling the whole 110-bale parcel “Tasmanian”. “That’s not cricket,” Calvert says. “We need to take back that control, verify everything as Tasmanian. Put an audit in place that verifies the step through the supply chain to make sure we maintain integrity. Once we do that, only so much wool will be available and we will start to twist price a bit at farm-gate level.” He says Roberts is very strong on ensuring a certificate of authenticity and traceability that is signed by the premier and dated on Tasmanian Government letterhead.

At the same time, he says there needs to be a shift of thinking and an education process. “Traditionally, the wool industry has been its own worst enemy – with three or four competitors vying for one client, all trying to undersell, driving price down to buy it cheaper and maintain margins,” he says. “We’ve got to flip that on its head and get to the other end of the pipeline – the consumer and brand end. We’ve got all of these things to talk about before we talk about price. If you like, we should be saying, ‘This is the price, there is no negotiation’.”

Food provenance has come of age in Tasmania with chefs making a beeline for Tasmanian produce. Now that wool is learning to tell the same story, Cameron sees an opportunity for regional growers to group together. “Getting links with retailers is a way of adding a little bit of value above and beyond just what we get for the fleece,” he says. “That’s what got me across the line. From realising I was losing money on wool I was selling, and deciding I had to try to make it work, eventually, after a 90-second mobile phone conversation, we had an agreement.”

Carl Mason, from Hobart-based Smitten Merino, says when he and his wife Nicola started their merino fashion clothing business 10 years ago, “most people thought wool was scratchy and itchy, yet it’s arguably the highest-performing fabric on earth”.

Education has been slow, but the greatest success with their lightweight merino brand (sourced from a co-op of mainly Tasmanian farmers) has been overwhelmingly in the tourist and interstate visitor market. “Professional women who fly a lot love our brand,” Mason says. “They know they can wear one scooped neck wool top all week – no washing or ironing required.”

Smitten’s head office at Battery Point is now its biggest local stockist, selling direct to the public. “Women fly down to buy direct from us,” Mason says. “Some don’t even visit Mona while they’re here.”

He says their family-run and owned business (their daughters are company models and sales reps) started gaining momentum in the past couple of years and, with a regular presence at Agfest and the Deloraine Craft Fair, they’ve received good feedback from wool growers. “It’s really nice to hear from farmers what a great job we’ve done for the Tasmanian wool industry, even though they may not be supplying us with wool,” Mason says.

At Smitten Merino, they see their next challenge as shoring up local sales while trying to crack the overseas market (which makes up just 10 per cent of total sales). “Europe – that’s our future,” Mason says. “We’re really just figuring how we market Smitten into northern Europe where they have a real fondness for merino wool – they get it. Do we get into building stores, or do we build websites in languages? We’ve got to tap into people who haven’t been to Tassie who are trawling the web for merino wool. Then we’ll be able to do a lot more for the economy.

“We’ve always believed in our Tasmanian-ness, but never before has it been more relevant. Never ever have tourists wanted local more than now – if it’s not Tasmanian they don’t want it. We’re lucky with Mona, with great chefs visiting and with our food reputation going from strength to strength. We hope to ride on the back of that. We just have to get our brand out of Tasmania – and out of Australia.”

Models pose for MJ Bale’s Kingston Collection.

Published in TasWeekend, August 5, 2017

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