Land of wood and wool
From a family-run farm in rural Australia to the woollen mills of Lake Como, Italy, the fine wool trade is more than just a transaction of goods, discovers Emily St John.
“The stories came up again when Mum and Dad were selling Woodlands,” says Mary Jane Loneragan as she perused the documents concerned with the sale of the family farm. The ‘Woodlands’ property is located in Pyramul, New South Wales, four hours west of Sydney. This is where Mary Jane grew up and where her father, Dave, owned and managed one of the largest fine grade wool farms in the country.
“It was always fine wool country but wool was going through a really tough time.”
It was the mid ‘60’s: cotton and polyester were taking over the market, and China, once Australia’s nearest buyer of fine wool, was opting for rougher, cheaper fleeces. Not to mention a punishing drought that lasted most of the decade.
“The smell and sound of rain is fantastic when you’re always waiting for it. Never was there more profanity than over the weather,” says Mary Jane, chuckling. “You had to have a big property to survive and we were lucky for a time.”
Woodlands still extends over 3000 acres and encompasses 44 paddocks, 47 dams, woolsheds, weather sheds and the family homestead. Most importantly, it is home to 6000 sheep producing 17-micron wool with a Triple A status.
In other words, very fine wool.
“People thought it was cotton because your skin could breathe but it was warm and you could wear it against your skin without a hint of a scratch,” Mary Jane explains.
A single fleece contains both fine and rough elements that are separated and packaged into bales for annual assessment by master Wool Classers at district sales.
Mary Jane recalls the winning bale one year. “Dad asked his neighbour who he’d sold it to and he replied, ‘Not sure, sounded like Kitchen Door.’”
Christian Dior had just sourced the finest wool of the season from rural Australia.
Back then, the top bale could sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars depending on the year.
“A year’s worth of work went into one sale, so one bad season of drought or a previous warm winter in Europe meant fewer buyers and then you needed to live off your savings.”
Dave knew he could not control factors such as the weather, so he compensated with meticulously planned breeding and shearing cycles as well as prayer should things not go his way.
Mary Jane describes a time when it rained incessantly after shearing season and hundreds of her father’s sheep froze to death.
“It was soul destroying for Dad because he couldn’t save them. He drove around the paddocks, picked them up and took them to the shearing shed where he laid fleeces over them to keep them warm.”
Most important in the production of fine wool are the experts who provide the ‘animal husbandry’ needed to nurture the sheep, “and that’s where my Dad came in,” says Mary Jane.
Dave was the eldest of two sons. He took over Woodlands after Mary Jane’s grandfather Frank died suddenly in 1942.
“Dad, like all the young men, longed to be a part of the war but he had to stay and provide for his family.”
Dave’s younger brother John owned and managed the adjacent ‘Greenhills’ property until the ’80’s when the Barberis Canonico family from Lake Como bought it. “They’d been buyers of Dave’s wool for some years,” Mary Jane explains. “And during that time, they developed a close relationship.”
“Mum made sure that when the Italians arrived she prepared a traditional roast dinner with all the trimmings,” Mary Jane recalls. “It could be a lonely place if you hadn’t grown up there and my parents helped them settle in and learn the trade.”
Later, they invited the Loneragans to their Italian woollen mill where Dave’s wool became luscious fabric sold on to luxury fashion houses such as Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Tom Ford and Ermengildo Zegna.
Zegna, also run by generations of the same family, produces over two million metres of fine woollen fabric annually and back then they were the biggest buyers of Woodlands’ ultra-fine Merino.
“Dad didn’t know everything about fashion but he appreciated good quality fabric and always wore the finest Italian woollen suits,” says Mary Jane.
The land where Woodlands is located is now called ‘Zegna Wool Country’. “A testament to the relationship Dad shared with the Italians.”
When Dave fell ill in 2001 he decided to move into town. Woodlands, established by his father in 1926, was subdivided and passed on to the care of his friends, the Barberis Canonico family, who bought three quarters of the landhold.
“Wool isn’t just about sheep. It’s about people,” Mary Jane says. She looks up from the old photos into my eyes. “It’s about the knowledge that’s handed down from generation to generation. From your grandfather to me and from me to you.”
I remember the first time I held a newborn lamb at Woodlands. I remember the first time I herded sheep from the back of Dave’s ute into the shearing shed. I remember the first time I played hide and seek with my siblings amongst those enormous wire bales full of the finest wool you have ever seen.
Over a plate of zucchini frittata and a glass of red wine, Mum and I toasted the universal love of wool, the finest of fibres.
This text on Wool was written and submitted by Emily St John for Round 2 of Modeconnect’s International Fashion Writing Competition. Check Emily’s entry for Round 1: Michael lo Sordo: The Butterfly effect