Woolgathering

I decided to approach the practical side of my Sustainable Textiles project, starting with wool.  This seems sensible as I’m very excited about the Lady Grey Jacket and the Gentleman Greatcoat

My first cursory search for “Australian Organic Wool Fabric” turned up not much.  A wiki article.  I did find a page full of sources for organic fabrics and clothing.  I see several lovely fabric stores based out of the United States.  All well and fine, and I know now I’ll probably have to buy my “sustainable” fibres from the U.S. anyway.

I galls me, and I refuse to go down without a fight.

Consider, as an example, NearSea Naturals:

Really?  100% Organic Australian Merino wool?  And it can be mine for a piffling $70/yd? (sarcasm, I doubt I can afford to make a coat from 4 yards of that without some extremely careful budgeting)  I have to wonder what trip this wool has taken before it reaches me.  Is it worth it, sustainability speaking?  Don’t get me wrong, I ordered a swatch of that and several other fabrics they stock, and I’ll probably buy from them.  I think they look like a wonderful company with a great underlying philosophy.

I went in to work the next day and put out the word that I am working on a project that includes sourcing 100% Australian grown and manufactured wool for a pair of coats.  Preferably organic, preferably low-impact dyes.  They’re used to my crazy ideas, and usually aid and abet my fibre projects.   This time everyone told me the mills in Australia shut down, and I wouldn’t find it.  Not here, not in New Zealand.   Our buyer gave me a few leads, including contacting Australian Wool Innovation.  If you can make any sense of that webpage, you let me know.

I called their office in Sydney and a very snippy woman told me it was not her job to help me and hung up.

I spent hours on the internet, trying to search out a mill producing wool fabric.  Nothing.  Not a thing for wool fabric, some bedding.  Eventually I got the number of a laconic but helpful “Greasy Wool” broker in Sydney and he sang me a story of globalization in the wool industry.*

(“Greasy Wool”)

All the “greasy wool” goes to Asia to be cleaned.  A small part stays here to be cleaned and combed into “top,” which is then spun into threads and woven.  He told me that 80% of “greasy wool” goes to China, but gave me the phone numbers of the only two places left in Australia that clean the wool.

I got nothing from the first number, and the person at the second number told me they were the only ones left making “top” in Australia.  He explained their top business was a byproduct of their abattoir, which makes me feel slightly ill.  I think if you kill an animal, you should use the entire animal.  Their methods jive with my ideals, but it still disgusts me slightly.  He explained that they have bales of certified organic wool and can provide the certification papers.  I told him I am not devoted enough (yet) to learn how to weave, and explained my quest.

 (Dyed Wool “Top”)

He thought me excessively strange, but he was completely helpful and kind.   He told me that no mills exist on Australian soil, that it costs a trifle to send it to China or southeast Asia to be spun and woven.  Sometimes it is sent to Asia to be cleaned, then on to Italy to be spun into thread, then back to Asia to be woven.  Or, apparently, to the United States to be woven.   He suggested I try contacting Labgear to find where they source their fabrics, which they proudly proclaim to be 100% Australian Merino.

Fabulous. 

The guy at Labgear was so sympathetic, so interested, and so helpful that it makes me want to buy their products.  I’d never heard of them before, but I think I need to stay away from their website or I just might buy their whole stock.

 (*wolf whistle*)

He told me they buy from Charles Parsons.  Their rep was just wonderful.  If I want jersey (which I will in the future), then I can have 100% pure organic australian merino.  The jersey is produced in Australia.  For wovens, the choice is limited, and they can’t yet certify organic.  They can tell me the wool is Australian, sent to China to be produced into fabric under ethical conditions, and sent back here.  I interrogated him on how often working conditions are checked, how they are checked, and about future organic certification.  His answers satisfied me.   Ethically speaking, they are the company to go with.   He sent me a swatch card of the flannels and the machine wash wools.  All the other wool is mixed with polyester (gross).

The Charles Parsons flannels come in a range of colors, I like the Bottle Green and Husband likes the Darkest Navy or Black.  They are as close as I can come to buying local, buying “organic,” ethical and low impact.  I think.  The fabric isn’t drop dead amazing, it is kind of abrasive, but that is ok for a coat.  Perhaps preferable?  It won’t be worn next to the skin and is designed to be worn for a long time.
  
Side note: the machine wash wool swatches are very interesting, they have a woven shadow stripe and I am convinced will never wrinkle.

I don’t think I’m crazy.  Australia supports an estimated 110 million sheep and produces 10% of the world’s wool.  Surely, surely someone somewhere on this continent produces woven wool fabric.

Or would the NearSeaNaturals Organic Merino (FROM AUSTRALIA!  GAH!) be preferable?  The Charles Parsons flannel is about $20 per meter and travels less.   But the NearSeaNaturals is so pretty.  I almost think I’d go without buying fabric for 6 months if I could justify working with the evergreen wool.  That is a very serious vow coming from a voracious sewist who works in a fabric shop.

I am nearly 100% convinced of the extinction of Australian commercial wool fabric production. 

The key word here being commercial.  I have cast my nets into the Black market.  I say that slightly tongue in cheek, I’m not sure whether to call it the Artisan market or perhaps the Private market.  I called the AWI helpline (as opposed to the sharp-tongued office line) and a sympathetic, enthusiastic woman provided a long list of contacts.  By that time, I had called half of them already. 

She gave me the number of a place called Cashmere Connections.  As far as I can tell, they are a small operation that cleans fleeces and spins them for people to turn back into fabric.  I haven’t been able to get ahold of the owner yet, but he should be back from Scotland next week.

I may try calling New Zealand at some point, as well.  I keep hearing apocryphal tales of a mill “on the South Island.”

At any rate, I’m sure that somewhere in Australia a weirdo lady combs her merinos and slowly weaves her beloved pet’s fleece into fabrics surpassing soft and fine, dyed with the pigments of the evening gloom, infused with the ancient mystery of her craft, woven with the strands of her thoughts and memories.

I can dream.  That would be ideal.  Person to person, providing a deeper understanding of the fibres and the clothes I spend my life in.   If this exercise taught me anything, it is how disconnected we have become from the source of the most basic elements of daily life.  It is much the same story as our disconnect with our food.

*(I took Economics 101 and know all about the cost benefits of outsourcing, etc etc.  If I didn’t already know, Husband reminded me when I was so frustrated.  And several people I called reminded me.  I get it, but I don’t think it is right.  It represents a system in which money is the sole bottom line, and I am a believer in the importance of a triple-bottom line system.   I think alternatives should exist.  I think it is shameful that no wool fabric is produced here any more, and must be sent to another whole hemisphere to be processed.)


3 comments

  1. Wow, you have been hard at work on this one! Did you have any luck contacting that fellow on ebay.au? I know he's not weaving anymore but I thought perhaps he could connect you with whoever bought his equipment~

  2. Our interests overlap — I've been reading up on the ethics and sustainability of clothing. I found an interesting report by the Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing called "Well Dressed?" that examines similar issues about the globalized nature of the textile and garment industry. They seem to think that "clothing miles" actually play a negligible role in a garment's environmental impact when compared with fiber production and processing and the laundering of the finished garment. Have a look for yourself:http://www.ifm.eng.cam.ac.uk/sustainability/The study focuses on the UK market but is of wider interest. I found it fascinating.I just discovered your blog! Looks like I'll be reading my way through it over the next few days.


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