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Manufacturing stories

Graziers test wool branding

Edition 187_Wallace

Ross merino stud breeders Georgina and Hamish Wallace have won the grand champion title in the Australian Fleece Competition in Bendigo for the second time in three years.

Only two other producers have won twice and the Wallaces’ 2017 score of 97.1 out of 100 was the highest in the show’s history.

Tasmanian superfine wool growers took home five of six major awards at the competition.

Shortly afterwards the Bowden family from Weasel Plains, near Bothwell, took out the Elders Southern Clip of the Year for the second year running at Sheepvention in Victoria.

One of the judges described the Bowdens’ fleece as "possibly the highest scoring clip to win this award.”

There’s never been any doubt that Tasmanian wool is unusually good, or that Australia’s finest superfine wool is grown in the State.

Tasmania still holds the world-record price for superfine wool, 32,000 cents a kilogram set in 1988 by wool produced by Jim McEwan, Georgina Wallace’s father, at Trefusis, the Wallaces’ 1830s merino stud south of Ross.

Obviously, the Tasmanian product merits place-of-origin branding, but existing supply chains and marketing systems make that difficult to implement widely.

Tasmanian growers produced 52,000 bales last season, with 90 to 95 per cent sold at auction, as it has been since colonial times.

The Mercury’s Hilary Burden reported in August on a growing mood for change to this marketing status quo and offered examples of how it is happening in the near absence of a local manufacturing sector.

(Launceston’s Waverley Woollen Mills – Australia’s only surviving wool weaver – Hobart’s Smitten Merino and small designer-makers Ally and Me in Hobart and Spotted Quoll in Launceston are close to the sum total of local wool value adding).

Burden’s unusually detailed report on the long-standing Tasmanian economic sector, included some intriguing examples of emerging supply chains.

As Tasmania’s Stories has previously reported, wool grower Simon Cameron and menswear brand MJ Bale are using a new awareness of provenance to market a line of suiting made exclusively from wool from Mr Cameron’s merino flock at his Conara property, Kingston.

“It’s an amazing project for a wool grower to be selected to have a product made just out of the wool they produce,” Mr Cameron told Burden.

Male models posed in the middle of a mob of the sheep that had produced the wool for their suits, slick advertisements were crafted and The Kingston Collection became a new way of selling Tasmanian wool.

Similarly, Country Road produced a limited-edition polo top this year using superfine merino wool sourced exclusively from Beaufront Station at Ross and milled in Italy.

Like the Kingston Collection, the exercise took three years to reach fruition.

Beaufront owner Julian von Bibra found it to be "immensely satisfying".

About a third of the clip from his 30,000 sheep now bypasses the auction system to go to Italy. A proportion of this is branded Beaufront.

“The crazier the world gets, the more people value something that is harvested sustainably off an animal and converted into something you can wear,” Mr von Bibra said.

“The fashion industry is fickle – at the moment, they want a story – but wool is also a very [reliable] product.”

Mr von Bibra had a suit custom-made in Australia out of cloth milled in Italy from Beaufront’s clip.

“I cannot wear that suit and stay sober,” he told Burden. “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.”

Alistair Calvert, the State Wool Manager at Roberts Ltd Hobart, told Burden a leading French top maker told him Tasmanians needed to stop dealing with wool as a commodity and to market it as a niche, high-end, natural fibre instead.

Nobody is saying the long-established auction system has to go, but a number of growers are finding ways to work outside it, including contract selling to specialised manufacturers.

Nick Bradford, a NSW wool fashion stalwart, said: “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.”

Carl Mason, from Hobart-based Smitten Merino which specialises in light-weight prickle-free garments, said: “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.”

Change is certainly stirring in one of Tasmania’s foundation industries.

Image courtesy of The Weekly Times

6 September 2017, Edition 187

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