2023 National Library of Australia Fellow Dr Lorinda Cramer started her 12-week fellowship to trace how consumers were educated about the quality of their woollen garments in the twentieth century but once she started exploring the Library’s collections, her research expanded into brand new woolly strands.
The inspiration for aspects of Lorinda’s project, From Shoddy to Superfine: A Material History of Australian Wool, emerged long ago but more recently, she’s thought about the potential for extending on the rich history of authentic Australian wool by focusing in on how it was worn, how it felt and what it meant for its wearer. And what better resource than the Library to explore this.
Guy Hanson: Good evening, everybody, and congratulations for coming out on another cold night in Canberra. Your courage and fortitude is to be commended. My name is Guy Hanson. I'm Director of Exhibitions here at the Library.
Thank you for attending this event, coming to you from Ngunnawal and Ngambri land. I'd like to begin by acknowledging Australia's First Nations peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of this land, and give my respect to the elders past and present and freedom to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders peoples.
This afternoon's presentation From Shoddy to Super Fine. A Material History of Australian Wool is by Dr Lorinda Cramer, a 2023 National Library of Australian Fellow. Our Fellowships Programme supports researchers to make intensive use of the National Library's rich and varied collections through residencies of 12 weeks. National Library of Australia Fellowships are made possible by generous philanthropic support and Dr Cramer's fellowship is supported by the Stokes family.
Dr Lorinda Cramer is a social and cultural historian whose work explores the gendered dimensions of dress and textiles. With a professional background as a museum curator and collection manager, her research frequently incorporates material culture and a close reading of things. She's a research fellow in the Gender and Women's History Research Centre in the Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Australian Catholic University. Dr Cramer's fellowship research at the National Library of Australia has sought to explore the history of how Australia's fine Merino wool was distinguished from shoddy, a poor-quality cloth made of reconditioned wool and waste, then synthetic alternatives and how consumers have come to understand the differences between them. Please join me in welcoming Dr Lorinda Cramer to the stage. Thank you.
Dr Lorinda Cramer: Thank you so much, Guy, for that really lovely introduction. In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders people's spiritual and cultural connection to country, I acknowledge and pay my respects to the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional owners and custodians of these beautiful lands and waterways. I acknowledge elders past and present and thank them for their wisdom and guidance as I walk in their footsteps. I'd like to extend this respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders peoples here today or watching online.
In February 1902, Brisbane's Queenslander newspaper published a piece that captured my attention. “A war is about to begin between wool and shoddy”, its unnamed author declared. “This is an age of counterfeiting.” The writer went on. “An age of imitation, an age when people more than ever before, want something cheap, something that looks good at first sight and costs less. Some goods were cheap because of improvements in machinery and manufacture, others because of competition from similar products. In both a low price did not necessarily mean poorer quality. “But” the writer warned, “another group of material made of cheap” – “Another group of goods”, excuse me, “made of cheap material caused inconvenience and dissatisfaction to those who've bought them.” In this category the best example and the worst culprit was shoddy, used in the manufacture of woollen clothes. We think of shoddy now as an adjective to describe poor quality, but shoddy then was understood differently as a kind of filler made up from old clothes, carpets and rags.
It was torn up in mills, then mixed back in with new wool to make cheaper cloth. “As the material from which it is made is old and rotten”, the author of the Queenslander article explained, “the filler is practically in the same condition and the clothing into which it is woven soon fades and becomes ragged and shabby.” Those who bought cheap clothes should know the price indicated a shoddy mixture, but those who purchased high-priced wool clothes thinking they were buying quality only to find out they'd been deceived by an inferior product were the ones who suffered from this disreputable practice. This world of deceit and illusion was possible as textile labelling was nowhere near as sophisticated as what we now know. If you'll indulge me for just a moment, I'd like to ask if you are wearing wool tonight. Could you pop your hand up if you are?
Ah, fantastic. That's such a great number of people. So I'm – the reason I ask is I'm curious about how you know you're wearing wool. Is it because the way it feels? Or the way it keeps you warm on a cold Canberra's night? Or is it because like me in my jumper, you've checked the label. The second one, the label. Yes. Both the feeling of wearing wool and trusted textile labelling are things I'll consider in my present tonight as I move from shoddy to super fine and from the turn of the 20th century to 1966. So this is of course not a random year. Rather, in 1966, the Woolmark label indicating pure new wool was rolled out on clothing in Australia and of course continues to be used today. So as I move across these six decades, I'll introduce you to some of the sources I've had the real pleasure of examining during my residency. I'll show you photographs that I've drooled over, though I hasten to add for the sake of the library team, I don't mean that literally. I'll refer to some of the Australian trade journals that I spent many weeks with, including Australian fashion news, clothing news, the Textile Journal of Australia, and this one, the Draper of Australasia. Though the pages were much denser with text than this particular example implies.
I'll talk about the magazines that I've poured over in including everyone's favourite, the Australian Women's Weekly. And as a little thank you to everyone who raised your hand earlier, I've included this advertisement from The Weekly in 1961. “The nicest people wear wool”, though I'm sure that does apply to everyone here tonight. I'll touch on some of the manuscript material that I've dived into, including the papers of the Faithful Family from Springfield Station near Goulburn, and this page describes some of Springfield's fine and fine medium wooled rams. Like that at the bottom of the page with a woolly nose and very fine dense wool. Altogether, a very good sheep. I'll move through department store mail order catalogues with their pages devoted to describing and illustrating clothes for country customers. These women's “Winter Woollies” from Anthony Hordern and Sons 1934 autumn and winter catalogue are variously described as being in a “new spongy knit pure wool”, “a soft quality brushed wool” and more. I'll think about educational and promotional material that was produced by the government like this poster, one of a set of six printed by the Commonwealth Office of Education that explains the cycle from fleece to fashion.
And sitting at the centre of all of this is material from the Australian Wool Board, also known as the Australian Wool Bureau across the years I’ll discuss, and I'll use the acronym AWB as I move forward. The annual report contained really rich detail for me. While gems like this photograph appeared too, a hat fashionable in the UK on the continent that was made of sliver or unspun wool. What I won't do in the next hour is revisit Australia as the land of the golden fleece, as this arch at Sydney's Federation celebrations in 1901 proclaimed. Nor will I concentrate on wool as a primary industry or the critical place of the natural fibre in the Australian economy and indeed in global trade. I won't talk about the science or genetics or breeding behind fine Merino wool, and the reason why I won't do that is that there are other historians who've done that far better than I can. I also won't think about the fascinating intersection between wool and war when the 2022 National Library of Australia fellow Madeline Shaw discussed this brilliantly in her presentation last year. You might recognise this image from Madeline's presentation. And if you missed it, I do encourage you to watch it online.
Though all of these underpin where I'll direct my attention tonight, my focus is on how consumers were enticed to wear wool. The language used to convey the benefits of wearing the natural fibre, and the excitement that Australian mills, designers, retailers, and industry bodies generated around wool fashions. Wool was much more than shoddy on one hand or super fine on the other. It could be fashioned into many different cloths and clothes of different weights and textures for different places and uses. It could be made and felt in a myriad of ways from as fine as silk as if Anthony Hordern and Sons catalogue put it in 1933. And if you look very closely, it also says “yet as warm as the proverbial toast”. The Queenslander newspaper article that I opened my presentation with took a particular stand, shoddy as deceitful and dishonest. According to that writer, shoddy was a menace, but others elsewhere saw it as necessary and really valuable. In Britain, shoddy had found a ready market as a cheaper serviceable cloth the people could afford.
From the time the industry developed in the 19th century, it continued to be valuable in the 20th century. In 1923, British manufacturers suggested that a good balance for fabrics that were strong hardwearing and reasonably priced comprised a mix of 50% new wool, 25% wool waste and 25% shoddy. Unlike Yorkshire, the home of reclaimed, recovered and reprocessed wool, Australia actually used little shoddy. One writer for the Textile Journal of Australia explained in 1926 that this was what he said, “an outstanding feature of the manufacture of woollen and wool stead cloths in Australia”, arguing that the longer shoddy’s introduction is delayed, the better. As this writer saw it, Australian manufacturers were in a very different position from those in Britain, with a good steady supply of wool close at hand. But imported goods that contained shoddy were entering the Australian market.
Socks and stockings from Britain, for example, that mixed new wool with shoddy. Sold at low prices it was difficult for local hosiery to compete. The reason shoddy held conflicting place was the potential for disreputable selling. Virgin wool made into cloth for the first time could be confused whether knowingly or not with recycled shoddy. Without labelling the distinguished between them, a writer in the Textile Journal of Australia in 1933 saw the potential for two problems. The first was that the buyer was compelled to rely on his usually imperfect knowledge or on the word of the person selling the goods. The second was that it was impossible for the honest trader to compete with unscrupulous persons who do not hesitate to offer for sale as all wool garments those that had been adulterated.
So how could reputable department stores alert their customers to the quality of the clothes at this time? The Myer Emporium, like a number of other department stores across these decades, produced mail order catalogues for spring summer, and autumn winter seasons. Each containing a vast array of clothes. Among the pages devoted to men's wear. Myer offered customers tailored made to measure suits as well as ready-mades. Tailor-made suits came in different coloured and patterned pure wool or steads with wool stead a fine smooth cloth produced from combed wool. These were Myer assured, reliable and stylish. Tailors also used a cloth woven in Myer’s mills, under the Myrall brand. It carried the Myer guarantee of complete satisfaction. For woollen swimsuits popular across these decades, Myer sold examples like the blue swimsuit at the centre described as finely ribbed full wool that was sold with a high or low back. This is why knit was important to keep the swimsuits snug to the body when they had the tendency to sag following contact with water. Of its jumpers and cardigans Myer promised customers, “You'll go into ecstasies” with examples like the very fine all wool jumper with the smart lacy tie that's second at the top, or the fine wool jumper that fits snugly at the waist beside it.
I mentioned a moment ago the Myrall suiting fabrics for men's suits. Myer also made Myrall brand wool underwear and combinations, bloomers, pyjamas and light dresses that you see here. You might be able to make out in the top left corner of this promotional sheet, the promise that Myrall underwear was made “from the finest Australian wool in the Myer mills in Ballarat.” I don't mind telling you that I found underwear fascinating across the last 12 weeks. Underwear occupied a really surprising place. It was not as likely to be adulterated or sold as something that it wasn't. So a writer in the Textile Journal of Australia in 1933 observed, “remarkable as it may seem, misrepresentation is practically unknown in the underwear section of the trade where it is the almost invariable custom of manufacturers to stamp their goods all wool or wool and cotton as the case may be.” In the second half of the 19th century, advocates for wool, including Dr Gustav Jaeger insisted wool be worn next to the skin. It drew perspiration away while other cloths clung wetly and unhealthily to the body. But Dr Jaeger was not content to have wool only against the body. “All layers should be wool”, he recommended “to prevent ill health being trapped in other clothing.”
The link between wool worn against the skin and good health continued well into the 20th century. In this advertisement for Jason brand underwear in the Drape of Australasia in 1909, Jason holds aloft a fleece in one hand and underwear in the other. It apparently has the feel of natural, silky softness made from the finest Australian wool. And Grace Brothers sold underwear of the Push Forward label that you see here in the 1913 catalogue. This was guaranteed to be of pure wool, so it was perfect for the most sensitive skins without causing irritation. And Eagley underwear made in the Collingwood mills was of the highest quality ensuring long wear and comfort, elevating it to as this advertisement claimed the position of “Australia's preferred underwear.” I think you'll have gotten a sense through these examples of why manufacturers placed an emphasis on pure wool. It was the illustration's highlight, so snugly and intimately felt against the flesh.
Wool described as pure and fine offered its wearers reassurance of quality. And you've now heard me use both the number of times when it was repeated again and again across advertising material. Some wool was not just fine, but super fine. Super fine mow refers to a specific micron measurement. The diameter of a wool fibre. The smaller the micron, the finer the wool. Australian Superfine Merino is 18.5 microns or finer. It's the kind of wool that we wear directly against the skin and that designers adore for its draping quality. Superfine wool has also been measured by count number as you'll see here in the What Wool Means to Australia brochure from 1966. And at the top of this scale, superfine Merino had an eighties count while fine Merino, a seventies count and so on. The eighties and seventies referred to the length wool could be spun into. And just as the use of the word shoddy stretched back to the 19th century, so did superfine. In 1888, Robert Beaumont described in his British Guide to Cloth Manufacture how the fineness of some wools is extremely fine, varying in the super fine qualities from a 1500th to an 1800th part of an inch in diameter.
“Wools from Germany and Australia were the finest of all wools”, Beaumont noted, “and in Australia those from Port Philip and Sydney were the best.” Stepping back further to 1841, one Melbourne-based clothier announced he had just received a shipment of goods including superfine Merino cloaks and ladies' superfine Merino cloths in the newest shapes. Or further back still in 1807, William Baker advertised superfine broad cloths of various kinds for sale in Sydney. Let me jump forward then to these fashions from Myer Emporium’s 1949 catalogue in which you'll see a superfine wool romaine, “a lustrous, lightweight cloth. It's the dress of subtle sophistication” as the catalogue describes in red, though it also came in sunshine blue, mushroom tan and frappe lime.
Another example is the superfine wool jersey, a stretchy knit fabric at the centre for mothers to be. This style had a feature called a Byron Bow tie at the neck and a self-tying belt that allowed the dress to expand as the pregnancy developed. Between cheap and superfine wool cloths there were in fact a myriad of options and these options began to face increasing competition. Burgeoning scientific research and development into what were called wool alternatives flourished in the first half of the 20th century. A sense of unease surrounded these so-called alternatives made from products like milk, soya beans, and wood. Petroleum-based synthetics entered the market in a spectacular fashion, particularly in the post-war years. Before we get to those years though, let me give you an idea of the ways wool promotion had transformed as the threat loomed.
Events like Wool Week organised by state committees initially, attempted to keep Australian woollen clothes at the front of the public's mind. “Use more wool” was one of their slogans. In 1932, this horse drawn float, which a Merino ram stood atop a pyramid of wool, was part of Perth's popular Wool Week street parade. While stores created special wool window displays. Others recognised however that slogans like “use more wool” needed to be turned into more sophisticated campaigns. “The public must be told the reason why and the advantages of wearing wool must be attractively and forcibly brought home to them”, one writer in the Textile Journal of Australia insisted in 1936. This writer went on, “Our women folk will not wear an ounce more wool unless wool garments are made fashionable as well as attractive.” This followed what some saw as a general trend that decade that wool was stodgy and of no use for young people who wished to be fashionably dressed.
That year, 1936, marked a turning point for the promotion of wool. With the formation of the Australian Wool Board. A levy for every bail of wool sold went into funding, publicity, promotion, and advertising. Initially six pence, this levy increased to two shillings with the passing of new legislation nine years later and continued to increase. Publicity ranged across the AWB news service, fashion pictures and press releases. Promotion came in the form of fashion parades, the Wool on Wheels service, market research and trade liaison. Advertising comprised the insertion of paid ads in newspapers, magazines and trade publications, via radio promotions and in point-of-sale merchandising material. I'll examine some of these in more detail to follow. I should say though that the AWB had a difficult job ahead as it set out to encourage Australians to purchase wool for preference, for style, service and durability. And to purchase wool in their own interests and in the interests of Australia. And it did not reflect all voices, as passionate discussion raged around what was best for wool's future. The AWB eagerly embraced fashion parades over coming years, often combined with wool displays at Royal Agricultural shows. An estimated 50,000 people viewed the 23 parades with this one, one of them, held at the Sydney Royal Show in 1940.
Or at this parade, one of 27 staged at the Sydney Easter Show seven years later, crowds estimated to number 80,000 gathered to see wool worked into women's wear, ranging from bridal gowns to playsuits. The creation of department store window displays, here for the Perth department store Boans, created more opportunities to see and purchase similar clothes to those worn in the parades. Even those passing by would quickly grasp the message with the giant sheep's head at the centre of the window and slogans like “wool for personal health and national wealth.” Catchy slogans like these were important. “There is no substitute for wool” appeared in 1947 and was used across many years to follow. This example, you'll see it down the bottom from an Australian women's Mirror advertisement concluded, an elegantly descriptive passage that announced “Wool is the wonder fibre of the century. It can be woven into thick, chill defying tweeds and woollens, or it can be made into fabric that is incredibly sheer and fine, beautifully soft and silky to touch and lovelier to wear.” An example of this fine, sheer cloth was sketched at the right in a pretty summer afternoon dress. Fine wool cloths also made brides and bridesmaids gowns. This pair was shown at a parade in Sydney in 1940 arranged by the AWB and David Jones as proof that wool is not always hot, bulky and heavy.
People from royalty to the everyday customer were encouraged to feel the cloth between their fingertips when it could be so varied. This photograph from 1947, 48 AWB annual report captured Princess Elizabeth, soon after Queen Elizabeth reaching out to stroke a tweed suit. An Australian apparel journal suggested that in-store sales could be cinched by “encouraging your customer to feel the quality of the material, often a tactile experience of the cloth is worth the best sales talk.” The AWB news service provided fashion flashes for newspapers around the country. They imparted dizzying detail about the latest colour, texture, shape, silhouette, and style for wool fashions. Men's suits received an occasional mention, but women's wear from bathing costumes, resort fashions to afternoon frocks and gowns for garden parties or cocktails dominated the service.
The news service was not afraid to name drop, especially the most celebrated French designers of the time who preferred wool for their creations. Dior, Schiaparelli, Balenciaga, Pierre Balmain, and the new designer Hubert Givenchy, who in 1952 found new and daring uses for wool. I enjoyed reading about the colours. In 1949 fashionable colours were wisteria mauves, rich blues, grass greens, and true candy, or soft blotting paper pinks. Or one particular colour might be fashionable in different shades for a season. In March 1950, grey ran from pale, silver tints through to clerical tones, to dark stone, thundercloud and asphalt.
I really relished reading about the shapes described in the news service. Evocative descriptions included “chasm deep pockets”, “wide-winged sweeping collars”, and one of my favourites “animated skirts”. But it was the news service's descriptions of the cloth itself that captured my attention. In the rich, lush, enticing vocabulary, wool could be made into a “sheer delicate chiffon weight” or “cloud light cloth for summer.” It could be “velvety brushed” or “thick shaggy” for winter, although so heavy, they were known as doormat woollens. Tweeds could be “soft and furry” or “rough and hairy”. In 1951, I found the not altogether flattering description of a fashionable pile cloth in an exaggerated weave that resembled a “wet poodle’s back”.
These descriptions reminded me of the huge vocabulary that could describe wool when now we are more familiar with the language used around its natural qualities, its strength, elasticity, its capacity to absorb moisture, insulating properties and more. Though I should point out that these qualities were also emphasised across these decades. And motoring around Australia from 1947, the Wool on Wheels travelling exhibition was a first in Australia, if not, the AWB proposed, the first for any wool growing country. This novel form of wool promotion the AWB proudly confirmed in the first months of its tour, has proven extraordinarily popular. 40 people could fit in the semi-trailer at once and while in there explore material ranging from that related to Australia's fine wool production through to modern fashion by exploring a striking collection of wool fabrics from Australia and London.
If the writer from the Queenslander who I opened with was seriously concerned by the upcoming war between wool and shoddy in 1902, he would have panicked in the face of the intense competition posed by synthetics just a few decades later. As part of what became known as the “global fibre wars”. One expert from Imperial Chemical Industries, the British synthetics juggernaut, assured readers of clothing news that “people talk glibly these days about the battle of the fibres, which is a most unfortunate statement. There is no battle, but on the contrary, there is a team of fibres each having a function in place of its own and each being supreme for some particular type of clothing furnishing or industrial textile. There was no threat to wool.” He soothed. “Wool really is such an excellent fibre”, he went on, “that if it were one of the newly discovered products and subject to the full force of modern advertising and the showmanship which is associated with the synthetic fibres, it would undoubtedly be hailed as the world's super miracle fibre.”
New synthetics like Bri-Nylon found immediate success through such advertising showmanship. The AWB heightened its suite of activities in the 1950s and sixties in response. Yet in 1958, Australian Fashion News printed a letter by one of its staff writers that absolutely wreaked of despair. “Gentlemen”, it began directed at the AWB, “We are Australian and because we realise that the future of Australia lies in the future of wool as a leading world clothing fibre, our columns have always been open to your promotional messages, but” the letter went on, “we are not getting anything like the publicity and promotion wool deserves. In the meantime, great synthetic promotions have made scorching inroads into the fields which had traditionally belonged to wool in Australia.” The letter writer emphasised, “and while the AWB was vainly wooing the public, synthetic promoters were carrying on a torrid affair with the textile mills and makers up.” They knew you see that if mills were weaving their products and the makers up were converting their fabrics, their battle was won. This was no time for subtlety or restraint. Vigorous if not aggressive year-round promotion was needed to counter the inroads being made by synthetics.
The emergence of new fibres came at a time when youth cultures blossomed, and new forms of personal expression emerged. Fabrics like Bri-Nylon, Acrilan, Orlon and Crimpling were eagerly embraced for youth fashions in bold colours and interesting textures. Synthetics advertising was fresh, confident, fun with its models adopting playful poses. By the mid-1960s, the language used around synthetics was vividly of its time. Referring to the mod and mad styling, to vibrant colours and crazy prints, to eye-popping, showstopping cloths. As much as I tried to resist even I found them really appealing as I poured through the magazine's pages. It helped that synthetics makers had a stable of celebrities ready for promotions. When Jean Shrimpton visited Australia in 1965 wearing DuPont's new synthetic fabric orlon, she shocked racegoers at Flemington racecourse for Derby Day in a shift dress that scandalously showed her knees. The shock that rippled around the country gave DuPont enormous publicity. The following year, this DuPont advertisement confirmed that Shrimpton had hit the headlines, raised the hemlines, and made an unforgettable fashion impact for orlon. It would be hard for the AWB to match this excitement, so it turned to prestige to help market the fibre. Australia's best fashion photographers captured glamorous, desirable designs in wool like this slim line dress modelled by a graceful Anne Moffatt.
Athol Smith was one of these photographers. He produced a series of stunning, joyous photographs of models wearing wool. I think I want to wear that skirt. Smith was eagerly sought for his elegant, alluring black and white fashion photographs. And it's not surprising that the AWB commissioned his work to give wool glamour. And Australia's best designers and best young designers used wool. Kenneth Pirrie and Norma Tullo, for example, whose designs appear in the Australian Women's Weekly fashion feature, the autumn team scene in wool. Others decided to use only wool in their manufacturing like Anthony Squires who put out a statement in 1961 after discussions with the AWB. The maker of fine men's suits had decided to exclude all synthetic or manmade fibres from its entire winter menswear range.
Wool’s position was complicated when the AWB stood firmly against promoting blends. Synthetic manufacturers, on the other hand, were excited by the idea of blending natural and artificial fibres together. Journals and magazines tried frantically to keep up to date with the growing array of choices. While some, the public, were confused. Even international designers who continued to be called upon to spruik wool's benefits seemed torn. When Pierre Balmain visited Australia in 1959, he reportedly said, “I hate manmade fibres.” This was not just spin, an article in Australian Fashion News assured, Balmain fervently believed it, though he was not insensible to the fact that blends could be beautiful.
One blend in particular captured the attention of manufacturers, retailers, magazines, and consumers. Wool with Terylene, the Imperial Chemical industry's brand name for polyester. When Australian fashion news announced that Terylene wool blends had come of age, it pointed to the natural advantages of both fibres that together created something versatile and highly wearable. This happy marriage of fibres contrasted significantly with the battle or war metaphor that continued to be used at this time. By then though wool science had made great strides towards achieving some of the modern attributes of synthetics.
When the CSIRO developed what it called the SIRO Set Process or permanent pleating for wool, it met one of the major challenges thrown by synthetics, the ability to permanently press creases in skirts and pants. SIRO Set was met with enormous enthusiasm, both in Australia but also overseas. The British retailer Harrods ordered its first SIRO Set pleated skirts from the Australian manufacturer Sportscraft in 1957. At the International Trade Fair in Melbourne two years later, the AWB display included this plastic mail mannequin with a stream of water spurting from his upstretched arm. He wore only a pair of SIRO set trousers. For the 14 days of the fair the water rained down on him as proof that his trousers would retain their crease.
And new labelling laws had come into effect that decade. The states had earlier passed their own legislations for Australian made materials. Though the rollout was delayed until Commonwealth regulation was put in place to ensure uniformity across all goods. The new requirement meant that imported textiles would also be required to name the fibres from which they were made, in order of dominance and the percentage by weight of each. So only material containing 95% wool could be called all wool. As consumers looked at the composition of cloth, manufacturers added their assurances. Globe Worsted Mills in Sydney's Marrickville, for example, guaranteed its use of 100% virgin wool. No substitutes of any kind are used.
One of the AWB'S most successful activities was the Wool Fashion Awards. Introduced in 1955 the awards encouraged local mills, manufacturers and designers to produce new and innovative clothes in pure wool. There had been grumbles for a long time before that Australia lacked the creativity of overseas designers and that Australians dressed in conventional if not boring ways. With these awards the AWB aimed to confirm our pride in Australian fashion designing and manufacturing standards, reminding consumers at the same time that wool will always have a role in high fashion, despite strong competition from synthetics. The awards revealed wool's versatility that it could be used for everything from evening gowns to men's jumpers. That it was glamorous but also warm and snug. That it suited all ages from matrons, and that's a term used by the AWB not me, but also the much sought youth markets. The Wool Fashion Awards encouraged striking design. Like this example from Sydney's Marlborough Productions that won the 1957 Supreme Wool Fashion award. The dress had an intricately cut bodice beneath its glorious matching cocoon cape in a wonderfully smooth blonde mink wool.
The winner of the Supreme Award the following year was this dress from Melbourne-based Sharene Creations using fabric from Ballarat's Wendouree woollen mills. The description of this gown in Australian Fashion News read, “a cleverly designed sack in a pale, amethyst coloured fine roasted wool. This popular winner featured at bloused back with a hip line band extending from the back of the reed slim skirt to a flat bow at centre front. And though it's a sack, it's moulded to show a woman's figure where it should be shown in fashion and to lift the dress from the shapeless of old status.” The number of entries steadily climbed from 300 in its first year. More than 1000 garments were entered five years later, and the number continued to grow. With labels removed for anonymity in these earlier years, judges looked for styling and fashion rightness, which they scored out of 50 points. Workmanship and finish, which was worth 30 points. And fabric for 20 points. And categories ranged from day dress and suit sections to tailored skirts and sportswear and included both men's and women's wear. Winners were celebrated in the trade press, including this cover of clothing news in 1960.
The winners were promoted to the public in magazines, including the Australian Women's Weekly and in special supplements to the Weekly, including this one for the 1961 awards, the gorgeous coat by Renny had a flared silhouette and a high women's collar. The winning garments were also worn at parades around Australia, showing audience how they looked and moved on the body, the swing of the cloth, or how it draped or hugged the figure. In 1961, these winning garments toured from Geelong's Palais Theatre and Sydney's Trocadero nightclub to the Broken Hill RSL and Launceston’s Albert Hall. By the end of that year, an estimated 20,000 people had viewed these parades. Demand for the clothes featured was so strong that manufacturers couldn't keep up with orders.
Some years were an astounding success according to expert commentators. While others were disappointing. These 1961 awards were dazzling. Clothing News reported that the audience reaction had been “outstanding” and made a special mention of the applause for a young Aboriginal girl model Lois Briggs. 17-year-old Lois Briggs, now Aunty Lois had begun her modelling career that year and caused a sensation when she graduated as Australia's first indigenous model. Tall with model measurements and a stunning complexion, enthralled audiences described how Aunty Lois walked like a panther as she moved down the catwalk. She was immediately in demand. The AWB quickly signed Aunty Lois up to model its 1961 gold medal award garments, and she travelled 12,000 miles to the places I've mentioned, but also to Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, and Brisbane, as well as here to Canberra.
When the Australian Women's Weekly introduced its readers to Aunty Lois that year, the magazine called her one of Australia's brightest young things. And a week later she appeared on the cover of the Women's Weekly Teenager Supplement, and in a further two-page photographic fashion spread looking terrific in a special wardrobe designed for her for the gold medal award parades. Aunty Lois modelled teenage fashions. Remember she was 17 at this time. Including a “fun, casual red shirt dress and a beautiful almond green one piece made to look like a separate sweater and dress with a neat tea cosy hat. She also modelled a striking apricot-coloured evening gown with its permanently pleated skirt draping like pure silk”, as the magazine described. It was Aunty Lois recalls “a brilliant experience and one that instilled an appreciation of wearing wool in her that continues to this day.”
In February 1966, the introduction of Woolmark in Australia witnessed what Australian fashion news called the most compelling advertising campaign ever seen in the textile fibre field. For a decade, even loyal supporters had recognised that wool couldn't compete with synthetics on price as it became cheaper and cheaper to produce. The Woolmark label aimed to establish an image of quality in customers' minds, so that they sought out and specifically asked for wool. The label signalled pure new wool straight from the sheep’s back, not reprocessed in any way. It assured that strict production standards had been met and it protected wool's unique qualities. And it did this through a symbol that would achieve global recognition. This pure new wool was handsome in town, rugged outdoors, easy-going, casual, durable, and faithful. It was the real thing.
I met many people in my research that I wanted to spend more time with. Nan Sanders or Miss Nan Sanders as she was more often called, directed promotional activities at the AWB across the late 1950s and sixties. I'd like to think more about her significant impact as it was Sanders who was tasked with creating vibrant, compelling reasons to buy wool. As I read through trade journals, I saw photographs of her in almost all male boardrooms leading their discussions. I read articles written by her for the trade press, one in Clothing News in 1961 in which she declared, “we have built an exciting, modern, desirable image of wool in the public's mind.”
Men more often controlled the directions taken with wool at this time, but I think this Wolfgang Sievers photograph captures really eloquently. During her decade long tenure as marketing director and director of promotion before her retirement in 1968, Sanders noted that “it is not a job for anyone seeking popularity. You can't make decisions and not make enemies in commercial, civil and social circles”. And as Australian Fashion News put it, “she has trodden on toes, but she's done so in pursuit of her aims in the promotion of wool. She's been volatile and abrupt at times and at other times charming, gracious, and witty. A final tribute might be that those who have crossed swords with her could never say that she has not done a superb job for the board responsible for selling Australia's most important product.”
For my bigger project, I'd also like to think about the much longer history of wearing wool in Australia. Cloth, of course, played a part in 18th century encounters. It was exchanged and collected on the Endeavour’s voyage. So how did Australia's First People's experience wool as it crossed from the woollen, uniform-clad crew of the Endeavour, and how did it become part of the experience of dispossession or of cultural negotiation when wool was made into objects of desire and power? And I'm conscious that much of what I focused on tonight was fine wool fashioned into longed-for clothes. But I'd also like to complicate this, recognising that experiences of wearing the fibre were not all the same. Wool could signal punishment if not humiliation when worn in certain ways.
As I draw to a close then I'd like to suggest that there's value in remembering that wool did and does come in a myriad of material forms. In different cloths, textures, and weights. We may no longer use the same language to describe wool as say 90 years ago when Myer printed this promotional sheet with its grizzly bear cloth or its crimp crepe. But wool is versatile and adaptable to different purposes and no dropping out of fashion, wool is again being used for wedding dresses, for athletic wear, for swimsuits and underwear. So why does this matter? You might be asking. With clothes purchased then discarded at dizzying speeds, wearing wool has consequences. You may have seen the launch of the seamless scheme led by the Australian Fashion Council last week. This scheme aims to deal with the 200,000 tonnes of clothes that go into landfill annually.
The Australian Fashion Council asked 30 major retailers to voluntary sign up to the programme. Committing to a 4 cent per garment levy on their sales. The funds generated will then go directly into textile recycling to sustainable design and to the resale of used goods, but only six of the 30 retailers signed up. These kinds of initiatives are becoming increasingly urgent. Our discarded synthetic clothes don't readily break down as landfills continue to expand. When the time comes, that wool can no longer be worn. It is biodegradable, breaking down. And I don't mean to suggest that wool isn't without its problems too, sheep impact the land and the environment, for example. But as voracious consumers of clothing, wool might be a good way forward as we deal with our love of fashion.
So, to end, a number of thanks are in order. To Dr Lois Peeler, Aunty Lois, for so generously sharing her experiences of working on the 1961 Wool Fashion Awards with me and for her permission to share her experiences with you. To the Stokes Family who supported my fellowship, allowing me to drive with great enthusiasm into the NLA’s collections, enriching my research beyond measure. And to the Library team who have made my 12 weeks here an absolute joy. I know we are all aware of the treasure this building contains in its remarkable collections, but it's so apparent to me that the Library staff are a treasure as well. In their warmth, dedication, knowledge, and passion. So thank you.
Guy Hanson: Thank you very much, Lorinda. I think we can fit in a couple of questions before we finish up. So please put up your hand if you have a question. We have microphones. So there's a question there.
Speaker 3: Thank you Lorinda, very much. Can you please name the six retailers who signed up?
Dr Lorinda Cramer: Oh, do you know now that you are asking me, no. But it's in a news ABC report from last week, and I was surprised by who the six were. I should have remembered for thinking somebody might ask this question. Does anybody have their phones and they can quickly look it up? I think it might have been – Lorna Jane was one. Yes. Fantastic. Country Road. Yes. There was Big W maybe, which I was surprised by. Yes, yes. Does anybody know the other three? Yes. Yes.
Speaker 4: The Iconic, David Jones, R.M.Williams, Lorna Jane, Rip Curl and Big W.
Dr Lorinda Cramer: Oh, there we go. Yes, yes. Thank you. Thank you everyone for answering my question.
Guy Hanson: No, I think we, Luke.
Luke: So you mentioned a bit about textile labelling in the Australian states in the 1940s and then Commonwealth labelling in the 1950s. Can you explain a little bit more about why it took us so long to get there?
Dr Lorinda Cramer: Oh yes. This is one of the things I've been thinking about as I've been here for my three months. The idea of why was labelling so slow to roll out? And it made me remember that of course there were far fewer options for what we could wear when people started to think about the urgency of labelling. So in the 19th century, for example, wool, cotton, linen, silk were pretty much the only options. But then at this really dizzying speed, you start to have these new alternatives coming through. So the first was called artificial silk, and it wasn't really seen as a threat to wool because it was a silk replacement. It actually then became called rayon.
But with these new wool alternatives made from those kind of natural products that I showed you, wood, soya beans, for example, I think there was a seaweed test in Japan as well to make wool alternatives. There became this increasing need to think about how consumers could begin to understand what their clothes were made from as there were these new options coming through. And I think then by the time particularly the 1950s struck, that was really when there were so many more choices available to people. And the Australian Wool Board recognised that it was getting really confusing. So they'd pushed for legislation for a much longer period of time to try to help people understand what they were buying. So I hope that answers that question. Yes. Thanks, Luke.
Guy Hanson: Any other questions? Over here. I've got one here and then one down the front.
Speaker 5: Thank you, Lorinda. In the time that you are covering as your project, have you noticed Australian wool getting competitive about other countries’ wool, British Wool or New Zealand wool ever being a problem?
Dr Lorinda Cramer: Yes, no, not at all. And I think it really is that Australian wool was so highly regarded, it was so eagerly sought in so many countries. So around these decades, about 90 or 93% of Australia's wool was being sent overseas. It was being exported and it was such an eager market for Australian wool. Bidding was quite hotly contested for good Australian wool. And I also think that the Australian Wool Board – so I don't think I mentioned this, but the year after the Australian Wool Board was formed in 1936, it was really instrumental in forming the International Wool Secretariat and it did that together with the wool boards of South Africa and New Zealand. And just looking at the breakdowns of the kinds of – the amounts of wool exported by these three major wool exporting countries, there really wasn't the same competition in terms of volume either. So no, I haven't really noticed a competition of that kind.
One of the things that I have been really excited by is when I find mentions specifically to Australian wool being used here. And I know that probably most of it was Australian wool because we were processing a good amount here. But I just love the thought that people are encouraged to buy because they do see it's Australian. And there was a time in the kind of, well, actually about 1910s, 1920s, thirties, where there was a Buy Australian campaign as well. And so this fit really neatly into that campaign. So that's something that I've really loved tracking and something I'd like to do more on. Thank you.
Guy Hanson: I think there was one down here.
Speaker 6: Thank you, Dr Cramer. That was amazing. As you were talking, I did wonder if the shift from people sewing their own clothes, having the skill and the time versus purchasing what is made available to us in Australian shops, how much that has impacted the story of wool in Australia, particularly in the last century. I went to Spotlight recently with an older relative who she wanted to buy a pattern and she sat down at the old pattern tables and was sort of reflecting at how vibrant that space used to be. And she was the only person sitting there today. And I just wonder, did that come up in your research, sort of the drop off from generations having the time or the inclination to sew with fabric?
Dr Lorinda Cramer: Yes, that's such a great question and maybe if I could just shift it ever so slightly, because one of the things I really did want to talk about tonight was home knitting. And I know there are a lot of knitting fans in Canberra. I know the NLA's wonderful book on vintage knitting patterns is just extraordinarily popular. And I was really interested in thinking about the popularity of home knitting at this time, and it was so vast and so wide, and I was looking at things like in 1940 home knitting patterns for swimsuits, which I was so tempted to make. But tracing how knitting gallons, for example, were being sold in the mail order catalogues was really, really fascinating for me. I think a lot of the material that I was reading in the trade journals in particular though was really kind of fashion focused, and it was all about manufacturers and retailers.
So the home dress making side of things really started to drop out then. I guess one of the interesting intersections that I have been thinking about, and again, I didn't talk about it today, simply because I know that I wasn't going to touch on wool and war given Madeline Shaw’s brilliant presentation last year, but I've been really interested in home dress making during World War II period and how clothes were unpicked, recut, resown, and the kinds of pattern books that the rationing commission were producing so that you could make your clothes at home during those moments of scarcity. Yes.
Guy Hanson: I think we'll have to call it quits there. So just a couple of quick plugs before we leave. I hope you can join us for our next fellowship lecture, Publishing the Anti-Colonial Struggle by Dr Angelique Stastny on Thursday, 6th of July. A reminder that our website is the place where you'll be able to find recordings of our recent talks and performances from our fellows. These are also available on YouTube, the Library's YouTube channel and Facebook page. Thank you for attending, and please join with me again in thanking Lorinda for exposing some of the Library's great treasures. Thank you.
Spinning a yarn
From the 19th century, shoddy – a term used to describe a fibrous material obtained by shredding woollen rags and waste – was, at times, sold to unsuspecting customers in the guise of pure new wool. By the time Australian textile labelling legislation defined what could be considered wool in the 1940s, consumers were bewildered by textiles and their fibre content.
Promoting the superfine
The wealth of material on Australian wool was immediately apparent to Lorinda, ranging across the manuscript, photograph, oral history, realia and general collections. Starting by looking at the promotional and educational activities that were taken, she focused her attention on the Australian Wool Board/Bureau but also explored clothes mills, manufacturers, designers and retailers.
As synthetic materials were rising in popularity, Lorinda was interested in the language used to encourage purchases of wool over other options. Backed by the Australian Government, campaigns run by the Australian Wool Board and the International Wool Secretariat stressed all the benefits of wearing wool and how it was an Australian fibre for Australians.
In researching these campaigns, Lorinda quickly discovered that it wasn’t just sweaters and scarves that the Library’s collections could help unfold.
‘As soon as I arrived and started to look more deeply, the collection revealed much richer holdings than I’d first imagined and so many exciting new strands of potential research emerged,’ Lorinda said.
‘Being in the Library offered such a rare opportunity to slowly and steadily move through Australia clothing and textile trade journals, for example, and mail order catalogues. In doing so, I discovered things along the way that I hadn’t been looking for (or consciously looking for).’
Notes on character
The Australian people’s interactions and insights were central to Lorinda’s research. Even the inspiration for her project came from her own childhood interactions with wool.
‘Growing up on a sheep and wheat farm in Victoria’s Wimmera district, wool was central to my childhood’, Lorinda said.
‘The shearing shed was a visual feast, but its sounds, smells and the feel of its surfaces have also stayed with me. I especially loved the atmosphere around shearing each year. Following the sheep from pen to pen, watching their fleeces thrown across the table, joining in a sweet treat for morning tea and checking the shearing tally board at the end of the day.'
This aspect of the wool industry, uncovering insights, both relevant and less relevant to her original topic, helped shape her thoughts as she continued to dig deeper. People are central to the history of Australian wool – in their interactions with and experiences of the natural fibre. When reading through a wage book for the camp cooks at Springfield – the sheep property of the Faithfull family – who the from the 1870s, Lorinda stumbled upon more than just wage records.
‘Each entry also came with a “notes on character” observation. One man was a “tolerably good cook and camp keeper”, but he could not be trusted “or he would go on the spree”. Another was a “very good worker” but “rather free and somewhat of a gambler”. Others were “lazy”, “grumbling”, “conceited” or “a schemer”. I pitied the man described as a “useless damned wretch, very dirty, can’t cook a little” who worked for three weeks and three days before being sacked, and was intrigued by another who worked for 38 days and was “a devil for stews”.’
If ever there was a time to call Human Resources, that might have been it.
Lorinda has begun writing a book based on her findings which she is hoping to complete in a few short years.
Wool out all the stops with a National Library Fellowship
The National Library of Australia offers a range of fellowships and scholarships to researchers, writers, artists and young scholars across various disciplines.
‘It was such an immense (and rare) privilege to spend twelve weeks concentrating on my research and luxuriating in rich, diverse sources that opened up new worlds into Australian wool for me,’ Lorinda said.
‘I loved the wonderful research atmosphere created by other fellows, who taught me so much about their work, and by the Library’s staff. They offered amazing support and their interest and enthusiasm for my project propelled it forward.’
Read more about the National Library’s Fellowship and Scholarship programs. Find the perfect one for ewe.