Making wool sustainable

Green Lifestyle

In a sea of otherwise bad news on wool, a new breed of sheep, and some great community partnerships, provide a more sustainable, ethical, Australian garment.

Sheeps backs

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There’s a term for the matted, dung-coated wool that hangs off a sheep’s rear end. It’s called the ‘dags’. These dung-dangling bits of wool are collected in a batch to make low-quality clothing, hence the term 'daggy'. But there’s a new breed of sheep that no longer has these ‘daggy’ bits – meaning that the sheep don't need to undergo 'mulesing', and it's a flock that is producing some of the most ethical and softest woollen garments available.

Wool production in Australia doesn’t tend to have an ethical, green, or sustainable reputation. In a previous story by Green Lifestyle here, we outlined the number of problems with the industry as a whole, including the need to mules to avoid fly-strike. Our story mentioned that there's a breed of sheep called SRS®-type Merinos to keep an eye on. The good news is that there are now high-quality, affordable SRS wool products on the market in Australia.

Here’s the story of the three family-owned businesses that are riding off the SRS sheep’s backs.

Growing the wool

Norman Smith runs about 12,000 specially-bred Merino sheep on his family-owned property near Wellington in NSW. At Glenwood Merinos, Norman has been breeding SRS-type sheep since the mid-1990s.

“We haven't mulesed since 2005,” says Norman proudly.

“I don't say that we have totally eliminated fly-strike, but it's very rarely that we see a fly-struck ewe, or sheep. But that's something that we always have to monitor, and we haven't had one in a very long time.”

Norman explains that it’s the amount of wrinkle in the skin of the sheep that traps moisture and attracts flies, so his ‘plain-bodied’ sheep solve the problem rather than just treating the symptoms.

His ethically-treated sheep also graze on a property that’s managed for regenerative agriculture. “Wool is one of the only fibres in the world that can actually re-generate the land. There's a number of ways that you can monitor that, but we're seeing regeneration of the land by managing it holistically and through time-controlled grazing.”

Norman has holistically managed the land on his property for the last 15 years. The technique he uses originated in 1955 by research biologist Allan Savory in Africa to avoid the problem of large tracts of farming land that were becoming barren desert landscapes.

Norman explains that “there's a number of advantages for us as far as the inputs required, but also, we're seeing a lot of advantages in the way the ecology is recovering from the graze, and what the graze does during that rest period”.

“One mob of sheep rotate through around about 30 paddocks, and each paddock is grazed – depending on the size of the paddock – for between three to five days, before it's rested for 120 days,” he explains.

“The more paddocks the better, but it's also about the intensity of that graze. So it's about knocking any of that dry grass down onto the ground so that it becomes a mulch layer to help build soil, and to help the bugs, bacteria and fungi in the soil – and that helps bring nutrients up to the top as well. ”

Norman admits that when he first started this kind of land management people thought he was “a bit out there”, but “there’s a lot less risk now than what we were doing in the past, and our costs have even gone down”.

The ecological benefits are impressive too. “Traditionally, in this type of country, you would put super-phosphate on, spray paddocks out and then sow them down to pasture – and we haven't had to do that for the last 15 years, so we've really minimised our chemical use.”

Producing the garments

Warwick Rolfe has worked in the wool industry for more than 30 years, and in 2005, he was able to bring a life-long passion to create an ethical, affordable, soft Australian-made wool garment when he established his company, Woolerina.

“The sense of sustainability and community in terms of the products we use is a fundamental philosophy of Woolerina,” says Warwick. “Knowing how the producer looks after the sheep, and how they look after the land, is vitally important to me... I want this land to be here in the same way in another Millennia.”

“If we can work with processes – particularly in the scouring area, where water rather than solvents are used – that's as important as knowing that the sheep are being treated as kind as they possibly can in the processing of the wool in the early stages.”

A few years ago, Warwick was able to take the wool to a combing plant in Wagga Wagga, and then a spinning plant in Albury, but he sadly reflects that “those two early stage forms of processing are now having to be done off-shore”.

Since then, he's visited wool-processing facilities around the world – from Japan to China and across to Europe – until he says he found the best processing facility in terms of ethical treatment of the people, the wool, and the environment in Malaysia.

“They're fairly paid, and their working conditions I think are as good as any European plant that I've been into. So I'm comfortable in sending the product into Malaysia.” Warwick's efforts have earned the Woolerina product a certification and swing tag from Ethical Clothing Australia. In addition, the products hold the Australian Made, Australian Owned logo, because more than 80 per cent of the production and profits are in Australia.

“It does hurt me that we've actually got to send it off-shore, but as long as I'm involved in Woolerina – and I plan to be around a long time yet – every other process, other than those early stage processes I mentioned, will be done in Australia.”

Warwick has helped to facilitate a new stage to the production of his clothing – a partnership with Signature Prints, a Sydney-based company renowned for it's traditional screen-printing techniques and contemporary colour, as well as a license to the Florence Broadhurst collections.

CEO of Signature Prints, David Lennie, said that he and his wife Helen had always had a preference for natural fibres, and were keen to fulfill their long-term love affair with wool with the Woolerina partnership.

“We are always looking for opportunities to develop new products,” says David. “So when Warwick first turned up from Forbes in the Woolerina 'van' we were blown away by his exquisite fabric, which wouldn't be out of place in the studio of a high-end designer.”

Signature Prints uses 100 per cent water based pigments and contemporary hand-printed designs. “You could say that the country and city cousins have come together to bring the romance back to Australian merinos,” says David.

A beautiful partnership

“What we're on about at Woolerina is community, and relationships, and understanding... I know that we produce a very good fabric that ultimately turns into a very durable and functional product to wear,” says Warwick.

Norman agrees. “I think the great thing about the partnership between us, Woolerina and Signature Prints is that we as the wool growers aren't trying to take this through to a final product.”

“So, we're the wool grower and it's our job to supply wool to Warwick at a certain specification, so if we don't meet those specifications as well as we do for the authenticity of how we're managing the land and the sheep, then Warrick won't continue the relationship. So that's our part of the deal.

“Warrick's expertise is the manufacture of the wool into the garment, and over many years he's been able to do a great job with that, so he's got very impressive garments that he's putting together. And then obviously Signature Prints, their expertise is designs and print designs that are friendly to the environment. I think that's why it's working; because I'm not trying to do everything as a wool grower, and Warrick's not trying to grow all the wool. So, we've all got our areas of expertise.”

Warwick hopes that his ethical products will help to improve the popularity of practical wool clothing once again, like it used to be, before any of the mulesing problems were brought to light. “In 1961, before John F Kennedy was assassinated in '63, the staff at the White House were complaining about being cold, and they wanted to turn up the heaters in the White House. And you know what JFK said? He said go and put another woollen jumper on. True story.”

“So today, if someone's complaining about the cold, I tell 'em to go and put a Woolerina on.”

“That's really what I want to do, you know. If we use more wool, we can turn down the heaters, and we don't have to use as much electricity.”

For more info, check out the websites for Woolerina and Glenwood Merinos.

A side note on shearing

We spoke with Warrick Rolfe from Woolerina the day after PETA released horrific footage of sheep treatment in shearing sheds.

“I've got to tell you, you would have seen a grown man cry, because I was absolutely devastated,” said Rolfe.

“I’ve visited maybe 3,000 woolsheds, and I can honestly say to you, with the exception of unfortunately just one shed, that I've never seen sheep treated like that in my life, ever, and it just appalled me to see that last night... I paused it so many times, to see whether we could pick up some lighting on t-shirts, or whether there were some brands on bales, but you know, I think parts of that were staged, I really do.”

Humane Society International's Director Verna Simpson responded to the footage, saying that, “if the Ag Gag laws come into place these issues would never surface and this shocking treatment would continue unabated”.

“Interestingly many farmers are as against the proposed Ag Gag laws as we are,” continued Simpson. “There is not a farmer in Australia who would condone the treatment we witnessed in the footage released last night. The majority of farmers take their duty of care very seriously. This is their livestock and dead sheep do not produce wool.”

Wool Producers Australia President Geoff Fisken, replied to our request for comment, saying: “The behaviour shown in the video was unacceptable and unsupportable, but it showed isolated incidents by a few shearers. We are certain it does not portray the majority of wool shearers and those shearers would be appalled by it as well”.

Fisken said the Australian wool industry had spent $2.8 million in the last year alone on shearer training, focussing on temperament and sheep-handling techniques to prevent cruelty to animals.”

Rolfe says that it’s problems like this that make him so glad there’s solutions like the SRS sheep at Glenwood Merinos, so he can remain proud of the ethical, sustainable reputation of Woolerina.

The author of this article grew up on a small sheep property in rural NSW, and it was her job to pick the 'dags' up from the floor of the shearing shed for processing into low-quality garments.