THE YARN: FIBRE
The wool grown by my sheep, with their access to nutritional choice and the serenity of a cohesive social structure in the flock, has just the characteristics needed to make beautiful yarn. Genetics have allowed me to produce superfine wool, and excellent nutrition means the wool is long in the staple, dense, with high tensile strength and a high comfort factor. The social cohesion of the flock reduces stress and improves health, presumably through the same mechanism as in humans—a stronger immune system. This year’s test results from the independent testing authority AWTA can be seen here. I produce between 1800 and 3000 kg of greasy wool each year, which turns into about 900 to 1500 kg of finished yarn.
In general, the finer the fibre diameter, the softer and more comfortable the garment made from it will be. White Gum Wool averages 17 microns in diameter, in the middle of the “superfine” range—16 to 18 microns. A micron is a millionth of a meter. Human hair ranges from 30 to 200 microns. The wool that goes into carpets and upholstery and rougher fabric like tweed is about 35-50 microns.
Any wool that is to be worn next to human skin needs to be finer than about 21 microns to avoid that itchy feeling that is often associated with wool. Most knitted next-to-skin garments are made from 19 to 21 micron wool. In contrast, most of the superfine wool has traditionally been used to make the world’s finest men’s suits, by companies like Ermenegildo Zegna.
It is only very recently that knitting yarn made from these beautifully soft superfine fibres have become available. White Gum Wool is one of the first, and one of the finest.
THE YARN: SHEARING & SHED DESIGN
White Gum Wool sheep are shorn once a year, in early austral spring. Contract shearers do the actual shearing, with help from shed hands to move the sheep through the shed and pick up and sort the wool before it is baled and ready for transport. Shearing takes less than a week, with two shearers, 2 shed hands and a wool classer (now me) working 4 two-hour runs each day. Morning tea, or smoko, lunch and afternoon tea breaks are all strictly adhered to.
My woolshed was built to my design in 2004. It is fairly rare for a new shearing shed to be built in these tougher financial times for farming. I wanted my shed to be a place that I could use for other activities than shearing, so it has a large floor area suitable for dances or workshops, a nice kitchen area and a beautiful wood heater. On the more technical end, it has a raised board, 2 shearing stands, wool bins that can be taken down and stored out of the way when not needed, and a holding shed that will keep about 350 woolies (unshorn sheep) or 800 shorn sheep safe and dry either before or after shearing. I would be happy to provide the engineering drawings on request.
THE YARN: SUSTAINABLE & TRACEABLE
Once the wool is pressed into bales, it is ready for the next stage of processing. Before I began making yarn from my wool, the next step was to ship the bales to Melbourne for testing and eventually either private or auction sale. That would be the last I would hear of my wool.
With the advent of my yarn business, the bales of fleece wool that are destined to become White Gum Wool yarn are sent to Canterbury Wool Scourers (Christchurch, New Zealand) for scouring--removing the grease, lanolin and dust--and from there to Design Spun Ltd (Napier, New Zealand) for gilling--aligning the fibres for a worsted spin--spinning, plying, dyeing and packaging.
NewMerino® Chain of Custody is an independent audit system that certifies my production system as sustainable, using holistic management guidelines, and also traces the journey of my yarn from the farm, through scouring by Canterbury Wool Scourers and milling by Design Spun. I maintain ownership of the fibre all through the process, so you are assured that the yarn you buy is made from the sheep I own. It's worth noting, too, that I only use the skirted fleece fibre in making WGW yarn, leaving the less desirable pieces, bellies and oddments to be auctioned.
See the New Merino Certification
THE YARN: PEOPLE
There are many people involved in the WGW yarn enterprise, starting with Lyn Fish who helps me each week to pack up the orders (wholesale and retail) and Sally Oakley who is our “pattern herder” and writes The Sallyravels Journal about yarny things for the website. My wool broker Eamon Timms of Fox and Lillie is a staunch supporter of the WGW enterprise, and Struan Hulme from Canterbury Wool Scourers has ensured the tricky and delicate process of scouring our superfine fibre has gone smoothly and well. At Design Spun, the whole team works to turn this challengingly fine fibre into WGW yarn. Particular thanks go to Peter Chatterton, whose decades in the industry have given him a depth of experience for me to draw on as I tried to learn the ropes very quickly. Yvonne Faulkner does an amazing job of keeping the fibre flowing through the many steps of the yarn-making process, and Matthew August masterminds the gilling/combing/spinning/twisting stages, where 17-micron fibre will misbehave if it possibly can.
Once we have the yarn back in hand, the yarn stores and independent dyers who carry WGW yarn (stockists) use their skills to get it into knitters' hands, either as the standard colours Design Spun dyes for me commercially, or as beautiful small works of art by indie dyers.
Taking WGW yarn the next step are the talented independent pattern designers who come up with amazing garments for you to knit.
And a special mention for my wonderful web and graphic design team: Michelle and Betsy of frenchbaker. Michelle and I embarked on this new website journey a few months ago, and we have learned so much, laughed a great deal and become close friends through the creative--and often mind-bendingly complex--process of bringing it to life.