Wool lasts forever and is a sustainable resource on which fortunes have been built around the world. It has been used in clothing for millennia, primitive man clothed himself in the woolly skins of wild sheep. The Babylonians were the first people known to distinguish sheep for their wool and for their meat, and the Romans used selective breeding for a superior fleece. Wool brought great riches to the Abbeys and Barons during the Middle Ages in Europe. By the late eighteenth century, the Industrial Revolution began a movement which took the textile industry from the home into the workshop and factory.
Merino sheep developed in Spain and were highly prized for their fine wool. In 1797, the first Merino sheep, derived from the famed Royal Merino Flocks of Spain, were introduced into Australia. John Macarthur was a British army officer, entrepreneur, politician, architect and pioneer of settlement in Australia. Macarthur is recognised as the pioneer of the wool industry that was to boom in Australia in the early 19th century and become a trademark of the nation.
At Elizabeth Farm in 1794 he began his first experiments in improving wool growth by crossing hair-bearing Bengal ewes from India with Irish wool rams.
In 1796 Macarthur asked two friends, captains of ships that were sailing to the Dutch Cape Colony, to procure any good sheep they could buy. By chance the King of Spain had presented to the Dutch Government some of the finest pure merino sheep from the jealously guarded Escurial flocks, once owned by King Philip II. These sheep were sent to the Dutch Cape Colony under the care of a Scotch gentleman, who died shortly afterwards. His widow had endless disputes with the Dutch Government, and, to end dissension, the sheep were ordered to be sold. A number of them were purchased by the captains and were duly delivered to Macarthur. The merino sheep, including three rams, were bought by several landowners, including Samuel Marsden.
Macarthur visited England in 1801, taking specimens of the pure Merino wool, and of the best of the crossbred, and submitted, them to a Committee of Manufacturers who reported that the Merino was equal to any Spanish Wool, and the crossbred of considerable value. This encouraged him to purchase rams and a ewe from the Royal Flock at Kew.
By 1801, Macarthur was the largest sheep rearer in the colony, although he was certainly not the only landowner to have experimented with the breeding of fine-wooled sheep. Although these sheep had already evolved a fine fibre, further selective breeding by Australian farmers soon produced the authentic Australian Merino with its even finer wool.
Australian Merino sheep have played, and continue to play, a major role in international fashion. Being highly resilient, wool had predominantly been used in utilitarian garments, particularly military uniforms and work wear. Wool’s big fashion break came in the decade following the First World War when Coco Chanel reinvented the fashion rules and produced a dress from fine wool jersey. Since then, wool has always been used in fashion.
The end of the Second World War heralded another fashion revolution called ‘The New Look’. Launched by the House of Christian Dior, the style used excessive amounts of wool fabric in designs as a backlash against the rations and shortages of the war years.
Over the years, classic and much-loved looks have benefited from Merino wool’s qualities. From the little black dress, to the V-neck jumper, to fine tailored suits, Merino wool has timeless appeal. Today, fashion designers and woolgrowers across the world continue to work alongside the best textile manufacturers to produce quality Merino wool apparel and connect consumers with its natural benefits.
Australian farmers have made great advancements in Merino wool production over the past two hundred years, and today they are justifiably proud of their tradition of excellence.
Many rural and regional communities continue to be supported by this most Australian of industries with over 50,000 Australian farmers and many tens of thousands more working in the industry. Most farms continue to be family owned and operated, with unique skills and a great sense of pride passing from generation to generation.
Australia has the world’s most advanced wool industry. No other country has such an efficient, transparent and highly developed wool marketing system; a trained and registered workforce of over 20,000 wool-classers who prepare clean white Merino wool for the world’s processors; and objective laboratory test results attached to almost every bale of Merino wool exported.
Australia’s advanced systems can also trace wool right back to the land where it was produced, providing consumers with confidence in the origin and quality of the Merino wool used in the clothes they buy.
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