Report from the
2014 Australian Sheep & Wool Show
July 18-20, 2014
By Kylie Gusset
Since 1877, The Australian Sheep & Wool Show (aka Sheepshow) has been the destination for all things wool. The showgrounds at Bendigo turn into an extravaganza of sheep and fleece judging, sheepdog trials, demonstrations of shearing, spinning, dyeing, machine knitting, craft displays, and food vendors. In previous years I've had the opportunity to be a yarn vendor, or stay the full three (better still, five) days, however, this year was a speedy day visit on Friday.
While there's plenty of official selling going on, we stumbled across a couple of kelpie pups on the way in. The owners were keen to find new homes for them, and the dogs were vying in the cute stakes with the lambs that were part of the schools judging competition. I was a tad confused about judging. Why was the Australian Wool Testing Authority (AWTA) so interested in Sheepshow?
Unlike Clara's Great White Bale, when wool is bought commercially in Australia, before purchasing the minimum of a ton (around six or seven bales) to scour, wool is tested by AWTA, and there's an excel spreadsheet of statistics provided. The 2,600 sheep entries and 500 fleeces that were entered into Sheepshow were tested with the most telling information pinned to the sheep's halter at judging, and above the fleeces for easy comparison. The champion fleeces are the stuff of handspinners' dreams—this prizewinner being a superfine 15 micron beauty.
New this year is a measurement of the comfort factor of wool, brought on by consumer thought on itchy garments (such a Mo Rocca's infamous comments in 2010). Out of the Merinos on display, the lowest measurement we saw was around 98 percent—which has one wondering exactly what Truffle the Australian Wool Innovation Merino Ram (shown here) has to do to get a perfect score.
I was lucky enough to catch up with Wal Merriman, Chairman of Australian Wool Innovation, as part of the long running Merriville Stud. Being the year of the Merino at Sheepshow, what was the backstory behind the breeding of the rams we were looking at? I thought there'd be some major yarn to be told (still do!).
Wal manages his flock carefully, finessing the work previous generations had done when they introduced specific Merino types—such as Saxon and Peppin—to the flock's genetics. As a result, there's now the Merriville type of Merino, which is favored by overseas spinning mills for its color, fineness, and strength.
It's an inconvenient truth of the Australian wool industry that there is no such thing as a truly "Australian" wool yarn, in the same vein as USA-based Brooklyn Tweed, Jill Draper Makes Stuff, or Juniper Moon Farm. Lack of Australian processing from sheep to skein is bewildering. We have a quarter of the world's wool, and the UK, USA, and New Zealand are paving the way in terms of locally made, value-added woollen goods, so it can't be said that there isn't a demand or market. We're one of the few countries where walking into a yarn store, it's now impossible to purchase something that hasn't left our shores.
In terms of yarn that's at least been spun locally, visitors to Sheepshow make a habit of stopping in at Bendigo Woollen Mills on their way to the showgrounds. Nick and Kylie Bradford from Nundle Woollen Mills came to the show. Theirs is a country-town success story. Nundle is a tiny (population 300) part of rural New South Wales, and the Bradfords have turned the mill and Nundle into a tourist attraction.
Nundle Mills were showcasing their new yarn caravan, a 72-ply (i.e. bulky weight) yarn originally created to cover a caravan for the Sydney Show.
The truly exciting sample for me, though, was a massive, soft, squidgy, luxurious length of pristine white wool, which is two top lengths, gently twisted together. Nundle had their own boffins/technology specifically to make the "yarn." It is then felted enough to make it one thick strand which should be lightly machine washable.
I picked up some massive locally made needles from Janet Knoop of Nanny's Spin On Things for a test run.
Charlie from Ixchel Fibres has one of the larger stash-enhancing Sheepshow stands. She breeds her own angora rabbits, whose fibers are featured in handspun yarns and various fiber blends. Somehow, she managed to explode her offerings to a massive amount this year, one of the most popular being a handspun hand dyed rainbow gradient yarn.
- A handmade tribute to Australian servicemen and women: 5000 poppies
- Polwarth yarns and fibres: Wendy Dennis of Tarndie
- Corriedale yarns and fibres: Bennett & Gregor
- Spinning tools and fibres: Spun Out
- Daato handknitting label: Miranda Pereira
- Yes, even the local tram was yarnbombed.
People do wear their best handmades for Sheepshow, so my final shot for the day was this young lady who was very proud of the dress that she had crocheted herself.
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