S:         Good afternoon and welcome to the National Library of Australia. I’m Susannah Helman, Rare Books and Music Curator here at the National Library. 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 through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Thank you for attending this event coming to you from Ngunnawal and Ngambri country. This afternoon’s presentation, Fabric of War, a hidden history of the global wool trade will be delivered by Madelyn Shaw, a 2022 National Library of Australia Fellow.

Our fellowships program supports researchers to make intensive use of the National Library’s rich and varied collections through residencies of 12 weeks. National Library fellowships are made possible by generous philanthropic support and Madelyn’s fellowship is supported by the Stokes family.

Madelyn Shaw is a curator and writer specialising in the exploration of American history and culture through textiles and dress. She has held positions at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, New Bedford Whaling Museum, the Textile Museum in Washington DC and the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York.

Madelyn’s current project is in partnership with Dr Trish FitzSimons, Adjunct Professor of Griffith University. Fabric of War, a hidden history of the global wool trade, explores the links between wool as a strategic military commodity in the 20th century with Australia at its heart and our current global reliance on synthetic fibres.

Please join me in welcoming Madelyn Shaw.


M:       Thank you, Susannah, for that introduction and thank you all for coming today. I would like to also begin by acknowledging Australia’s first nations peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of this land and offer my respect to the elders past and present and through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and this story is in many respects also yours. I’m also grateful to the wonderful staff and the very generous funders of the National Library for the privilege of this fellowship which indeed has been a privilege.

Okay. This project, Fabric of War, which I share with my colleague, Trish FitzSimons, who’s here today, now Adjunct Professor at Griffith Film School, is a transnational commodity history with Australia and wool at its centre. Our original focus was on wool as a strategic resource in wartime as combatant and neutral nations jockeyed for access to the world’s limited supplies. Very quickly we realised that the demand for and the manipulated shortages of wool in wartime led many nations to search for adulterants and substitutes and eventually replacements.

It's a complex and fascinating story, It’s multinational and multidisciplinary and full of those pesky rabbit holes into which researchers fall whether they will or no. The National Library collections, many of which could not be accessed anywhere else, have helped us climb out of some of those holes, they’ve given us new perspectives and fresh insights. This presentation is an overview of the project but it delves a little bit deeper into the areas and the topics that I’ve been able to research here and Trish has helped me with.

American author Mark Twain in his 1897 book, Following the Equator, spun a charming little fable that Britain’s imperialist businessman and politician Cecil Rhodes got his start by cornering the wool market in Sydney, Australia after he found a fragment of a newspaper in a shark’s stomach that told days before the news could arrive by ship of the Franco-Prussian war erupting in Europe. Twain’s point was that the shark was faster than the ship but I took to heart the point about wool and war.

Trish and I began this project with the basic premise that from the 1850s through the 1950s wool was an indispensable part of warfare in western cultures and a sizeable portion of that wool was Australasian.

Why wool? For one thing for centuries in most of Europe it was the most commonly available fibre and wool is resilient, is flame-resistant and it has insulating properties that can keep you warm even when it’s damp or wet. Not surprisingly it became the fibre of choice for military uniforms, blankets, socks and underwear and ancillary objects like flags, canteen covers, even gas masks. Civilian populations relied on wool too and not only for their own needs, in every nation citizens have knitted and sewed, sending socks and shirts and other comforts to family and friends serving in the military. It’s an important physical activity that fostered strong emotional connections.

In practice all nations have stockpiled wool when they saw war on the horizon so in the first year or so of any war from the Crimean through the Korean every soldier, no matter what side, was almost certainly wearing at least some British Empire wool. The spread of sheep pastoralism in the 19th century spurred by British colonisation and British capital goes hand-in-hand with the mechanisation of wool and textile manufacturing and the expansion in the sizes of armies.

Would the same source of supply hold true for uniforms made later in a war? Only within the British Empire and its allies. The world was divided by war into the wool haves and the wool have nots.

The wool trade of course begins with sheep. I’m not going to dwell here on sheep pastoralism because to date most of our unfinished research on this aspect of the project has not involved National Library collections as much as other resources and interviews that have been spearheaded by Trish. Suffice to say that the early 19th – by the early 19th century the wool-producing nations of Europe were at capacity in terms of the available pastoral land. As populations and demand grew and mechanisation crept into the wool and textile industry decades later than it did in cotton the European governments looked to colonial expansion for raw materials.

Lands in the southern hemisphere and Pacific Ocean, not only Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, but the Hawaiian Islands and Rapanui were wrested from their indigenous owners, often violently, and turned over to grazing sheep. It’s worth noting here that Royal Charters gave a million acres in New South Wales in 1824 to the Australian Agricultural Company specifically for the purpose of producing merino wool for Britain and in 1825 allotted 250,000 acres of Tasmania to 22 persons associated with the British textile industry including an army clothier as the Van Diemen’s Land Company.

In the US similarly sheep companies, settlers, as they pushed north from Mexico and west from the Atlantic Coast across rivers and mountain ranges, occupying land and igniting frontier wars along the way, the small flocks of 18th and 19th century east coast farmers gave place to the medium-sized flocks from Spanish settlements and what is known as the old northwest, now the middle west, in the 1830s and ‘40s. Then gradually to huge flocks on the open ranges of the west and southwest. Those of us who grew up on Hollywood westerns knew about the range wars between sheepmen and cattlemen but very little about the impact of these incursions on native populations or on how they ravaged native plant ecologies. Wool became what a 1932 Pathe Films documentary produced in Australia termed, perhaps without realising the double meaning, white wealth.

The forerunner of these land wars was the decades-long series of highland clearances in Scotland which basically replaced tenants with sheep and then sent the tenants to Britain’s colonies, the dispossessed moving along to dispossess others. The clearances were seen by some as an answer to Britain’s need in the later 18th and early 19th centuries for wool and mutton as its various wars on and around the continent of Europe damaged trade and drove the nation inward on its own resources.

One very significant outcome of those wars was the spread of the genetic material of the merino sheep around the world. Sought after for their fine fleece Spanish merino sheep were jealously guarded and only occasionally distributed by the Spanish Crown, usually to fellow monarchs until the Napoleonic wars shattered the country’s independence. Invading soldiers ate the unlucky sheep, canny generals and diplomats carted them off to found their own flocks and fleeing Spanish noblemen sold them to finance their escape from the devastation of war.

E I du Pont, a French immigrant in the United States, and gunpowder manufacturer in Delaware from 1802, bought a merino ram, Don Pedro, from another French émigré in 1804. By 1811 he owned a woollen mill that was supplied by sheep from his and his partner’s flocks. It was in operation until about 1850 and it would not be du Pont’s only textile-related business but it was the first to tout its contribution to national economic self-sufficiency.

Incorporating merino genes would radically remake sheep and their wool. The 19th century saw sheep being bred not only to survive but thrive in new environments including Australia’s semiarid regions. The wool from those sheep was bred to be long and strong enough for processing by powered machinery. This was a vital precursor to the highspeed, high-volume production of yarns and cloth that would supply the enormous armies of the 20th century.

The mill city model of the cotton industry and related technologies were adapted for wool, first in the British city of Bradford. British colonial development of breeding programs for the largescale sheep pastoralism fuelled the technological advances that encouraged the expansion of wool and textile manufacturing around the world.

Why is this important? Well as an extreme example the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway says to outfit an 11th century Viking longship with a single woollen sail, 10m square would involve 150 to 200 sheep, giving about 50 kilos of wool and five human workers for about a year. That’s from shearing through washing, carting, spinning, loom setup, weaving and finishing.

Compare this to industrialised wool consumption during world war two. While an adult American civilian consumed an average of 1 kilo of wool a year the US Army estimated that each soldier heading into combat required gear consuming about 45 kilos with an annual resupply of about 20. That would prove to be an underestimate. Mechanised, automated and organised into factories 125,000 workers in the US wool and textile industry during 1942 alone produced 227 million linear yards of textiles, woven textiles for the American military. I love this picture here of the socks. The sock and garment knitting industry has its own phenomenal set of statistics and our research has shown that it does not do to underestimate an army’s need for socks.

By the turn of the 20th century the British Empire produced about one-third of the world’s raw wool and in terms of the wools most suitable for clothing, about half. The US imported 40% of the raw wool that it consumed. European nations were also net importers. Asia and Africa exported mostly coarser carpet wools. Looking at wool yarn and cloth production in 1914 up until the outbreak of the war Britain, the US, France and Germany were very close competitors. While for European nations wool textiles were an important export the US market was almost entirely domestic, they never really exported very much at all. Japan isn’t even listed, its developing wool industry was then focused solely on reducing the hard currency costs of outfitting its diplomats and its military in western style uniforms.

Recognising who the raw wool consumers were points up another key dimension of this increasingly globalised wool trade and Australasian leadership of the same. New transportation and communication technologies, steam ships, railroads, telegraph, the telephone helped wool find its distant markets. Pity the poor broker’s clerk tasked with coding and decoding the day’s messages, telegrams from, to and within Australia regarding wool prices, qualities, purchase and shipping. The code book here at left is just the supplementary book for 1896 for this one firm. My glasses at the top centre give you a sense of the scale. This is not something you carried in your back pocket to whip out and decode a telegram, it practically needed a room of its own.

The wool industry was big money and it demanded a certain level of secrecy. British imperial leadership in wool production provoked a complex politics of wool during wartime. Who had the wool and who wanted it and when became desperately important. The distances that codes and steam ships helped wool travel safely in peacetime would be a liability in war.

Which leads us to the first world war in which between 65 and 70 million served in the opposing armed forces, an almost unimaginable quantity of wool was required to equip these millions and again not just the original outfitting. The armed forces required constant resupply, items wore out, they were abandoned or lost, they were taken as souvenirs or buried with the dead. For every soldier or sailor in the thick of the fighting there were many others behind the lines, support troops, medical staff, ambulance drivers, uniformed volunteers, the labour corps. Prisoners of war and the wounded had to be cared for. Governments everywhere strained to clothe and shelter their military and almost as an afterthought civilian populations.

At the beginning of the war Britain imposed a naval blockade on the central powers which limited – on their limited ports which prevented access to wool among many other materials and that they imposed a series of restrictions in British wool producing colonies to limit access to wool by neutral and even allied nations. In early 1915 Britain instituted compulsory purchase of the UK woolclip followed in November 1916 by acquiring India’s blanket wools and commandeering the entire Australian and New Zealand woolclips, leaving South Africa’s modest clip alone, open to neutrals and allies. How many of you joined a sheep club?

On the manufacturing side wool prices were unsettled and the shortages that occurred were only partially due to military demand, they were also due to wartime shipping risks and the need to juggle competing strategic cargoes. The warring nations were also desperate for the hard currency gained through trade. British wool textile manufacturers were expected not only to supply their own army and continue their export trade to neutral and allied nations, they were also told to win over the markets formerly supplied by German and Austrian manufacturers or by firms in the German occupied parts of France and Belgium.

The British Government also wanted to sell raw wool to the nations fulfilling allied and British military contracts but Britain also wanted to keep wool away from those who might trans-ship it to their enemies. American wool textile manufacturers of German descent, a group that had started arriving from the 1890s in response to US protective tariff laws were in the anti-German hysteria of the time very suspect.

This brings us to another central theme of this project, one that the National Library’s collections have helped us really strengthen. Our history of wool and war is also a history of the demand for, invention and proliferation of manmade fibres because if you were at war with your main supplier of raw wool and your carefully hoarded stockpiles run out then what? Well you ration it, you adulterate it and you try to find alternatives to it. In fact the search for replacements began in the very early 19th century in Batley, Yorkshire with the invention of machinery that could take used woollen cloth, rags and tailor scraps and shred it back into fibre to be re-spun together with new wool. The textile industry term for this recycled wool fibre is shoddy and it was commonly used in slave and labouring class goods.

It took on new meaning at the beginning of the American civil war when mixing too much shoddy with scarce new wool to eke out supplies did not go well. The ensuing scandals ensured that the word shoddy became a synonym for knowingly inferior quality. Note at left here the extraordinary number of rag sale categories in the shoddy market in 1940. I think I counted 62. Even as the use of shoddy was refined and expanded the search for a wool replacement intensified as armies grew larger, trade routes more hazardous and wool supplies harder to access.

So when by 1916 Germany and Austria were scrambling for wool desperation manifested in a variety of forms. In occupied territories soldiers confiscated wool and woollen rags and gathered mattresses to remove the stuffing, shipping it all home for processing. Both governments invested heavily in [airsots], 20:48 substitutes to blend with wool and cotton such as nettle fibre, woollenised jute – can you imagine what that felt like? A seagrass-derived fibre called Posidonia with an Australian connection and another called Celidonia derived from rami.

Paper yarns were woven into fabric on their own and substitutes were not just for civilians, the ammunition pouch here at centre at the bottom is in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. It’s one of 40 objects made of spun paper yarns collected in Germany by the US Army in 1919 as military salvage. The Museum acquired the group in 1923 at the end of a post-war victory trophy tour. For the Museum, however, the paper yarns were not a trophy, they were examples of a technology that the US might need to adopt in a future war.

The Germans also made very limited use of regenerated cellulose fibre which we know as rayon, extruded from chemically processed wood pulp in the first war. Invented in the late 19th century and first dubbed artificial silk it was in limited commercial use from about 1912, British, American, German, Italian and Japanese companies emerged from world war one embracing the chemistry of manmade fibres and the field grew very rapidly.

The artificial silk was renamed rayon in 1924 to remove the negative connotations of the word artificial and of wartime [airsots]. But rayon yarns were slippery and shiny. They were weak dry, they were weaker wet and they stretched or shrank when they were laundered or drycleaned. By about 1930 rayon filaments could be dulled down or delustered and produced in shorter lengths called rayon staple that more closely resembled cotton and wool. Fibre and cloth manufacturers assured consumers that rayon was an exciting modern fibre, fully as useful as any other, just less expensive. The textile trade journals of the time however acknowledged its many limitations sometimes openly, sometimes obliquely, simply by the number of products offered to manufacturers to redress those problems.

One huge flaw in the rayon manufacturing process is that it relies on chemicals, toxic both to workers and to the environment, impacts that were known from the 1930s but largely suppressed until the 1990s. Governments and corporations wanted the textiles, the profits from them and fewer supply chain problems far more than they needed healthy workers, water or land. It was cheaper for companies to move than to clean up, to find a more pliant location with less regulatory oversight and more desperate workers or of course this was Germany in world war two, forced labour.

Practically from inception the rayon industry was one of big international capital and interlocking ownership among chemical companies and fibre manufacturers. As the ‘30s played out this led to conflicts between the economic and strategic interests in many nations and textile fibres became an important target of intelligence-gathering. The map and chart at right here were meticulously hand-illustrated for a confidential report on the US wool market submitted to Canberra by the Australian Trade Commission in Canada in March 1938. It recommended that quote, in view of the importance of wool to Australia it may be worthy of consideration for the Commonwealth Government to establish a close, official, unobtrusive surveillance through the New York office in some such similar manner to that in which the interests of the Australian dried fruit industry are observed in Canada, end quote. Bet you didn’t know that.

Rayon fibres, yarns and fabrics were extremely lucrative, increasing production and market share every year during the interwar period. Until 1941 US fabric manufacturers added rayon to cotton, wool and silk fabrics without needing to label them as mixed and that took longer for Britain and Australia to do that. Garment manufacturers appreciated that rayons were not only cheaper than natural fibres but they were less durable. Both factors encouraged more frequent purchases. Wool-growing nations were only too aware of the threat that staple rayon and the drive for new synthetics posed to their industry.

One of the most exciting discoveries in the NLA collections was when Trish joined me here for a week to explore the McKay family papers. We hoped that a series of letters between Agnes McKay living in Wallendbeen and whose family numbered wool-growers and Eberhard [Altenius] 26:10, a German wool-buyer, would help us better understand the wool market in the interwar years and indeed the letters revealed tangles of personal and commercial international connections.

Eberhard was born into an important Bremen family. His American mother’s brother, Roland [Klupfel] 26:31, who served in the US Army, 1917-18, worked for the Boston wool importer, [Alrich’s] 26:34, which was also a ticketing agent for the German shipping firm, North German Lloyd. Eberhard was introduced to the McKays when he came to Australia to work for the wool-trading firm Lohman and Company in 1931. Founded in Sydney in 1892 by Alfred Lohman, another Bremen-born wool merchant, the company had been shut down in 1914 when enemy nationals either left Australia or were interned. But the wool business and foreign buyers returned in about 1923 and Lohman’s ended up opening branches around the world.

Alfred who was in Germany in the first war worked with North German Lloyd, run by his father, to operate the merchant submarine, Deutschland, which in 1916 delivered German dyes for the US textile industries to Connecticut and Baltimore with the approval of the US Government. By the 1920s Lohman’s was run by family connections, the Waldhausens, with one branch settled in Sydney. Have you got all that? There will be a quiz.

Eberhard’s letters are full of his Sydney social and business life, tennis parties with Japanese wool-buyers, constant travel, whether visiting growers or taking trains or ships or eventually planes to wool sales. His frantic business trip, whose aims we can only surmise, in the summer of 1939 through Sweden, Belgium, France and London and Bradford in England followed by three weeks in a German sanitorium on a vegetarian diet to subdue his sorely tested digestion and finally resolving his torn loyalties by travelling back to Australia by plane arriving after a seven-day trip one week before the outbreak of the second world war on September 1st. He was as he expected promptly interned and spent most of the war years in camps. Eberhard and Agnes married in 1946 and raised sheep in Wallendbeen for several decades thereafter. It’s a great story.

It's clear from this correspondence that as international tensions mounted in the 1930s textiles and politics were increasingly overtly intertwined and the wool business suffered. The National Library’s important collections of Australian, British and American wool industry trade journals and pamphlets backed by the J F Guthrie papers and your I must say seriously covetable Trove newspaper database bear this out. Governments of many rayon-producing countries declared its use to be patriotic and mandated fabrics blending rayon with wool or cotton for civilians. This contributed to the much desired state of self-sufficient economic nationalism called autarchy.

As nations looked ahead toward war efforts to acquire wool, stockpiles were hampered by hard currency availability and the continuing dislocations of the great depression, not to mention drought in Australia. This made the search for a wool replacement urgent. As one pamphleteer wrote in 1935, quote, 60 million Germans cannot be expected to go naked, they must have clothes. If they cannot get wool they must find a substitute for wool. The urgent question for Australians is this, will the Germans be forced to make synthetic wool? End quote.

Italy was a leader in rayon and invented a synthetic wool called Lanital, an extruded fibre derived from the milk protein and casein. Lanital yarns, miracle fibre propaganda aside, were weak and worse, the fabric smelled like sour milk when it got wet, flaws that were shared by its wartime American counterparts, Aralac, which I think was a wartime takeover of patents. According to a post-war British intelligence report milk simply proved too important in the axis nations as a food in any case to be diverted to textile production.

Japan’s staple rayon exports to Asia, Africa and Australia financed its military expansion. In 1938 it pressured Australia to import more rayon from Japan and export more wool to Japan while mandating that all wool cloth for the domestic civilian market had to contain at least 40% staple rayon. I mentioned earlier that Germany had tried using its early rayon to mix with cotton during world war one. When the Nazis came to power German chemical and textile companies doubled down on rayon and staple rayon blends but German researchers were also trying unsuccessfully to develop fully synthetic long chain polymer-type fibres, building on patent ties with the American firm, du Pont.

In the US du Pont first entered the rayon field in 1921 and in 1928 began its search for a fully synthetic polymer-based petrochemical-derived fibre. The company’s immense profits from producing gunpowder for the 1914-18 war supported this quest. After the 1934 publication of the book, Merchants of Death, and the subsequent US Senate investigation into munitions profiteers du Pont rebranded itself, placing textile fibres at the heart of its business. Central to this was a redemptive narrative of how modern science had not merely created substitutes for natural fibres but rather, as the company promised, better things for better living through chemistry. US Government concerns about the wool supply bolstered du Pont's position.

When war came again in 1939 and Britain again commandeered its empire’s wool that wool was again prioritised for use by the military. Just as Japan had mandated rayon blends in civilian fabrics in 1938 the US, even with access as an ally to British Empire wool, required blends for civilians from 1942. Competing cargoes, submarine and surface warfare and competition for manpower all affected as they had in the first war getting wool to where it needed to be.

The axis nations stretched their military stockpiles as far as possible, primarily by blending wool with rayon staple but in spite of continued tinkering rayon remained inferior to wool in strength, warmth, resistance and flame resistance – resilience and flame resistance. In 1939 German military uniforms were said to be a mix of 15% staple rayon and 85% wool. By the end of the war that was reversed, 15% wool, 85% rayon. It does not require textile specialists to imagine that rayon blends and Russian winters do not happily coexist.

With staple rayon no true substitute for wool Du Pont and its competitors worked hard to fill the gap. Du Pont's imitation wool, an acrylic polymer called Fibre A, was marketed from 1948 as Orlon but not widely produced until the early 1950s. During the Korean war Orlon and Du Pont's staple version of nylon was only considered experimentally and chiefly to pressure Australia and New Zealand to prioritise wool sales to the US. Internal du Pont documents show that the company was keenly aware of Orlon’s many deficiencies but the public narrative of progressive modern science never faltered.

At the same time chemists in the UK, Germany and the US developed the polymer fibre that became known as polyester. The first viable version was terylene, patented in Britain in 1941 but not in commercial production until a long time after the war.

The price of wool rose to dizzying heights during the Korean war. While the boom was short-lived the prices, not availability, did push the American military to experiment with synthetics, a portent of things to come. Wool’s dominance was challenged as a strategic military resource by new forms of warfare for smaller numbers of soldiers and theatres of war in warmer locales and for civilian consumers by the spread of central heating and clothes dryers. Woolgrowers and manufacturers fought back with their own advertising campaigns. The wonder fibre, W, seen here is a definite clap back at du Pont’s penchant for single letter naming of its experimental fibres.

But in the trade journals and the fashion magazines blends of natural and synthetic fibres were heavily promoted and eventually accepted, synthetics having been comprehensively marketed to and in wartime mandated for civilian populations was vital to this change.

Many military forces around the world have been testing wool blends again for field uniforms and the US Army recently resurrected its world war two era pinks and greens dress uniforms, using a textile described as higher quality and longer-lasting than the previous uniform which I think can be read as having a higher percentage of wool. Just a few days ago Ukraine appealed for winter clothing for its troops so we’ll see if wool is in for another boom cycle.

When I applied for this fellowship I explained that Fabric of War was not a new project but that pandemic isolation had allowed us to go back through piles of notes, what we’ve decided is a stupid amount of research, and identify the thin spots. As is often and perhaps always the way when you actually visit a research repository my time here has resulted not only in filling those gaps but inspiring new avenues of exploration and giving me the time and resources to investigate them.

Polyester is now about 60% of the textiles market and the biggest single source of microplastic pollution. It’s our belief that the direct links between 20th century wartime interruptions in the wool supply chain and the relentless marketing and cheapening of synthetic fibres and textiles help explain why fast fashion consumerism is so entrenched. That is not to say that wool doesn’t have its own set of environmental, social and economic impacts but perhaps buying fewer things of better quality, capable of almost infinite refashioning and recycling and eventually biodegradable would be better for us.

So a final gift from the National Library Fellowship program to this project has been the time and the headspace for us to devise a new title for our proposed general audience book. Fleeced. Thank you.


S:         Thank you very much, Madelyn. We now have time for some questions for both Madelyn and Trish FitzSimons from Griffith University. As this presentation is being recorded please wait for the microphone to reach you before asking your question.

A:        Madelyn, thank you for your presentation. In your research were you able to discover in the case of Australia, which led? Was it wool that pushed early colonial settlement into the black war period or was it the black wars that opened up the space for woolgrowers to then move into that vacuum?

M:       I’m deferring to Trish.

T:        Thank you for that question. Perhaps you could deliver us an answer too. I mean I’ve been drafting – we’ve started to draft Fleeced and I’ve been drafting the chapter about pastoralism and frontier war just in the last three weeks and it feels so important and complicated. So your question is did the frontier war make it possible to have wool or did wool lead to the frontier wars? I think it’s in an unholy alliance. I in this last two weeks have really scratched into the Australian Agricultural Company that in 1824 gets given by Royal Charter – it’s called the – by Royal Charter and following legislation in the British Parliament talking about the wastelands of New South Wales. So we can argue about whether or not terra nullius was the language used in the early 19th century but there’s no question that the notion that this was a continent ready for the taking.

So a million acres is given to – I don’t know – there’s pages and pages, I haven’t counted how many people there are in the Australian Agricultural Company but it includes John Oxley. There’s a William Wilberforce MP, we’re not sure if it’s the William Wilberfoce –

M:       It’s not, I found that out.

T:        - Archbishops, big pile of Macarthurs. They could take this million acres wherever they wanted and the New South Wales Government didn’t know about it. They take their million acres - they’re afraid Oxley’s going to die so they take their million acres around Newcastle and the – and Stroud, Gloucester then they decide oh that land’s no good, no, we’ll have 350,000 acres near [Gunaganoo] 41:41 and 250,000 near Quirindi but we’ll just keep the – we’ll just keep the mineral rights of Newcastle ‘cause that’ll be – steamships are beginning. This is diving into a rabbit hole that we’re still finding our way out of but I don’t know – it is shocking to me and I don’t know why it should be after all we know about frontier war but the way that the land of Aboriginal peoples is just delivered in – to commercial interests with – the Australian Agricultural Company isn’t only about wool but that’s central and of course that’s just scratching the surface of the million different kinds of squatting and pastoral occupation. But –

M:       I do know that in the west, the United States western states, Oregon and Idaho that as the sheep and cattle were brought in mostly grazing and federal forest lands in and around Indian reservations up there, that reservations were cut in size constantly. So you might have a million acres and then 10 years later it would be cut to half a million and 10 years after that it was 35,000. Then by early 1900s, instead of that land being available to native peoples who had used it traditionally to hunt and for ceremonies you had – they had to apply for permits to use it.

T:        Certainly the big report which is done in 1819 by a – well the sort of – the field work is done in 1819, the reports come out, are kind of clear that they want Australia to – actually even before, Lord Hobart in 1804 is saying the Macarthurs are showing some interesting experiments with fine wool, we’ve got to make sure that the colonial mob produces the raw materials but not the – doesn’t set up manufacturing to compete with Britain, is the unspoken ellipsis other than producing coarse cloth. I’m not really answering your question but it’s a –

M:       We keep saying, it’s complicated.

T:        Yeah and the – for Australia as convict, the period of transportation comes to an end, a source of export income is absolutely critical. Wool is the perfect export commodity because it doesn’t require refrigeration when of course there is no refrigeration and it can last for months and months as it goes back to Britain and other manufacturing centres. So it’s – we are empire.

A:        Yeah, thank you very much for your wonderful presentation and all the work that you’ve put into the whole fellowship, it’s quite magnificent. I’m a former woolgrower of a fifth generation family of woolgrowers in local area. I was wondering if you could – a couple of things spring to mind, a pound a pound was a thing where wool was paid pound a pound in the 1950s because of that Korean war, I think, is what I was led to believe. But could you just say a little bit about the - Australia riding on the sheep’s back as – if that’s a consideration. The wool exports were at one time Australia’s highest export.

M:       For more than 100 years I think they were -

T:        150.

M:       150 years they were Australia’s most important export so again not sure if – how to condense everything we know about Australia on a sheep’s back in 10 words or so but what’s been interesting to me, in 2015 I would never have thought that the next seven years of my life were going to be spent investigating the ties between Australia and America on wool but here we are.

What I find fascinating about this topic is that it is that intertwining, is how tightly the politics and economics have been linked for I would say not the first 50 years of Australia’s learning about sheep but since the civil war and the American civil war and through the Korean war they were really tight and this was an important – as Australian and New Zealand were really important sources of supply.

When we started this project what we discovered was that there had been a lot of focus on the wool-growing and the wool – just Australia, wool is a primary product but that there had been very little written on what happened to it all, where’d it all go? Who wanted it and why? I think that is the part that we got really fascinated by, especially as related to wool and who controlled it, how the British controlled it during world war one which set off this – which eventually destroyed a lot of natural fibres, not just wool but in its – in their place in our lives.

T:        If I can come there, I mean in that gap between Australia, nation on a sheep’s back but with us never really exploring where all that wool went to and why and where the – why suddenly the demand kind of disappeared to a degree. Australia is the heart – from the 1880s the world’s biggest wool market is here in Australia, especially in Sydney but also in a range of different – and in fact there’s six generations of the men in my mother’s family are wool-buyers working between Australia and the rest of the world. Working on this project made me realise I love wool and I have a – and I realise that it’s almost in my DNA but – so respect to those who have produced beautiful wool from this land. As Madelyn presaged at the end there are some complex environmental questions with how to do wool well and getting good wool and hanging onto it for dear life is part of the answer.

A:        Thanks for your talk. I think you might have partially answered in the last question what – the last part of your answer what I was going to ask but much of my 80 years has been intertwined with the wool industry one way or another. I’ve always been fascinated by the sheer love of a kind of romantic idea of the wool industry in Australia, to the point where I did an exhibition at Hyde Park Barracks about 25 years ago on wool in the Australian imagination and I’ve wondered – I’ve never been able to quite grasp how deeply imbued Australians were with this sort of – which permeates song, poetry, painting, all sorts of things within our psyche about the wool industry.

Yet underlying all that was this huge impact on the Australian environment which we’re only really I think now over the last 20 years or so coming to grips with. I wondered whether your work had shown up any reflection of that impact because I still think that Australians can’t grasp – you hear a lot in the literature or you see a lot of newspapers about the terrible things that mining does to Australia, for instance – and I'm not a lobbyist on behalf of the mining industry but in fact the wool industry and the beef industry have much bigger impacts on the Australian environment in terms of hectares at least and that impact is going to last for centuries and reversing it is going to be very difficult. I wonder whether you’d looked at that issue of the environment as well as – had come up during your research?

M:       That is something we’ve looked at, we’ve done a number of site visits and a number of interviews that Trish has dealt with and - but I agree, it’s not an easy thing to discuss or to talk about. When you look at cotton, cotton has devastated the agriculture - cotton agriculture has drained the Aral Sea dry. It also has huge impact and as do the synthetics. So I think that what we’ve actually spent a lot of time looking for in the – in literature is has anybody done a study? Are there scientists out there who are like making a nice little chart for us on comparative environmental impacts of these various fibres? No. So if you know anybody who wants to do that we would love that chart.

T:        Further to that, I mean a statistic we’ve come across recently is that polyester is the biggest single source of microplastic pollution in the ocean so – but coming back to your substantive question about wool and environmental impact, certainly the – and Sandra McEwen’s work has been important to us – the sheep husbandry that creates what we now call the Australian merino culminating probably in the Peppin merino which I think in 1880s is certainly about making - that Spanish merino that Madelyn told us about that comes out of Spain has beautiful wool and can be crossbred and crossbred but what somebody like Samuel Marsden really does is make a stronger, heavier animal that can survive the rigours of the Australian environment.

That heavier animal of course has got harder hooves and we had a research visit to Casterton in the western districts of Victoria about two months ago and reading John Robertson who’s one of the very earliest squatters there from the 1840s on [Wondovale] 54:07 Station, he’s already writing to La Trobe in 1850 noticing that there are kind of – that the environment isn’t quite as pristine as the Australia Felix that –

M:       That he moved into.

T:        That Major Mitchell had seen in 1836 so it’s unquestionable that the wool industry has negative impacts or that sheep have negative impacts on the environment. As I say one of the – one of our answers to that is all of us need to right here right now get rid of fast fashion, buy quality fabrics – I reckon wool’s pretty fabulous – and hang onto it and recycle it and make it last because to our knowledge they all have impacts including bamboo, greenwashing, just another name for rayon. So I’m partly kind of countering like – yeah, there’s no perfect textile fibre that we have discovered. Linen’s pretty good.

M:       Well it’s hard to grow.

T:        Yeah.

M:       One of the things I love – one of the other aspects of your question was about the mythology of wool in Australia and that’s one of the things that has been really interesting to me, not being – I’m a city girl, my first encounter with sheep was at the University of Edinburgh when I walked onto the Arthur’s Seat and I came face to face with a sheep and I didn’t know if it was going to bite me or what. It didn’t, it stared at me for a while until I walked away but we have just been so struck by how difficult it has been to raise sheep here. It is not for the faint of heart, there’s – what can go wrong will go wrong endlessly and repeatedly.

T:        Yeah, Alexander McKay whose papers are here in the National Library – we haven’t yet been able to get to the earlier ones but in the 1840s when there’s a depression he’s endlessly having to boil down sheep to make tallow and he doesn’t have containers for that tallow so he uses the sheep carcass to kind of put the tallow in and it’s like – I think I’m coming to understand sheep pastoralism in Australia as survival of the fittest and those that truly embrace the land. Next week I’m going to interview Helen Close who’s 92 years old and in the 1950s her family it sounds like make a motser from the Korean war but her accounts of the 1930s are neighbours walking off the land and Helen and her family relocated to the cities.

Probably that’s one of the stories of what takes us to synthetics, is not the supply chain issues for the haven’t nations, not the kind of – the vicissitudes of climate and drought and prices going up and down, yeah. So respect to those who’ve found a way to do it and like other sheep farmers I know, to love their land and actually – we interviewed Charlie Massey, generative agriculture and finding ways to farm sheep in ways that are good too for the environment is very important.

A:        Thank you very much for that informative talk. I was really struck by your statistics of 125,000 workers in United States who suffered from producing that synthetic materials –

M:       The 125,000 was for producing wool textiles during world war two in the one year.

A:        Then after that you referred to the fact that the synthetics were dangerous to the –

M:       Rayon remains dangerous.

A:        Yes. In that same light as we have like that green revolution how do we keep going to create a more respectful way of creating fabrics? I was working quite a lot in the government clothing factories in Melbourne in the ‘70s where the uniforms were made out of wool and the industry was also particularly dangerous to the women working there. It was mostly Greek, Italian, Maltese women did all the designs on all the uniforms but it – again it seems to me that yes, we need to create environmental ways that are productive but I’m thinking that research is like another rabbit hole, it’s like how do we create more respectful ways to produce fabrics for us as humans to have?

M:       Well as somebody who has a family history of textile clothing apparel workers in my family I would suggest that paying better wages would help a lot, better conditions in terms of health and safety in the mills. Also for – I’ve lost my train of thought but just slower, a slower pace so that - we don’t need to consume as much as we do and if we consume less and it’s more expensive and it lasts longer that should be okay. I just - it’s really hard to buck that – I mean if I talk to my 17-year-old niece who I don’t think since she was 10 that she’s worn a garment more than six or seven times. She can’t because if you wash it three times it’s threadbare. That’s the fast fashion of trend and – but that’s what they’ve been taught and it’s going to be really hard to counteract that but I think for the sake of the planet and the future, I think we have to. Anybody else? One more.

A:        [unclear] 1:33 in a rural part of the country and the sheep-owners and woolgrowers were seen as the heroes, they were the people who did it tough but they got the good prices. In the social hierarchy in those districts, they were number one. To get a job with them was equivalent to getting a job in a bank. There was job security, there was status, there was standing and to work for some of those property owners was to be part of the aura that went with those families. So that went on for – right up until the ‘70s. I remember [unclear] 2:12 as my family would listen to the pricing news that would come out of the ABC news. The way we eventually listened to coal prices we listened to wool prices and we heard what that meant for the local wool-growing families. So the reinforcement of that economics and that power structure was there hand in hand all the time so –

M:       That’s –

A:        - the mystique, the mystique added to all that. We were all part of it. We all benefited from it so we all contributed to it so to me it just was a natural thing, I just grew up with that and it was only when you stepped outside of that that you realised all the things that you’ve just said about that injury to the land and to the exploitation of the workforce.

T:        It’s very interesting, in the ANU History Department in 1959, there’s the young Geoffrey Blaney and the young – what’s his first name? Frank Barnard. Anyway – and so there’s a series of lectures about wool and it’s got historians and scientists and it’s kind of like this is the national industry. That turns into a book called Simple Fleece published 60 years ago this year but meanwhile Geoffrey Blaney is there, the other young Turk in the History Department and he of course is on about the history of minerals and mineral exploration. Yeah, there’s no question that wool was our national industry and that it’s – we have become – since you were a young man and since I was but a pup our – we’ve become a different kind of commodity economy with minerals at its heart. But it would be good to think that the wool industry does have a future in this nation but yes, produced – producing fine wool that lasts a long time. Thank you.

S:         Thank you very much, both, and thank you very much, everyone. As we draw to a close some quick plugs before we leave. I hope you can join us for our next Fellowship lecture by Professor Paul Turnbull titled Living with the Dead, exploring first nations settler relations through the lens of mortality in colonial Australia on Thursday, the 6th of October. Our website is the place where you’ll be able to find recordings of interesting and diverse recent talks or performances by our fellows. These are also available on the National Library’s YouTube channel.

Thank you very much, everybody, for attending today here and online and please join me once again in thanking Madelyn Shaw for a fascinating presentation.


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Madelyn Shaw is a curator and writer specializing in the exploration of American history and culture through textiles and dress. She has held curatorial and administrative positions at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, New Bedford Whaling Museum, The Textile Museum (Washington DC), and the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Her current project, in partnership with Dr. Trish FitzSimons (Griffith University) is Fabric of War: A Hidden History of the Global Wool Trade, which explores the links between wool as a strategic military commodity in the 20th century – with Australia at its heart - and our current global reliance on synthetic fibres.

As a 2022 National Library of Australia Fellow, Madelyn has been researching the global wool trade. This presentation examines wool’s vital role as a military resource from the American Civil War through the Korean War, the last conflict in which wool was a major strategic imperative. It is a trans-national story, long fragmented and obscured within various national histories. At its heart are the close, often contentious ties among Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. But it also reveals how British control of nearly half the world’s wool during two world wars drove ‘have-not’ nations - the US, Germany, Japan, Italy - to search for substitutes, and eventually, the synthetic fibres which threaten our environment today.