If you own a piece of apparel made out of wool—from suits or sweaters to shoes or hiking gear—the raw material was likely shorn from sheep in Australia, the world’s biggest producer of the fiber. But the industry that once made the nation one of the world’s wealthiest is now in decline, with scorching droughts, the ascent of synthetic fabrics, and consumers more aware than ever of animal welfare issues. Charlotte Graham-McLay traveled to Tasmania to meet wool farmers who are trying to write a new, successful chapter for Australian wool.
On a recent Monday morning in November, at about the time she might have arrived at her office in another life and in a country on the far side of the world, Nan Bray pulled up her hood against the howling, blustery wind and strode across the paddock toward her mob of waiting sheep.
On Tasmania, the small island off Australia’s southern coast, home to half a million people and 2.2 million sheep, the colors of the landscape are not quite like anyplace else. The state is less verdantly green than neighbouring New Zealand but not as drought-brown as mainland Australia, and the gentle hills of Bray’s farm gleamed with silvery grass that covered olive- and khaki-colored paddocks. On the horizon, the gnarled arms of dead white gum trees pushed out of the earth like picked-clean bones.
All over the district—a wool-obsessed region of a wool-obsessed country—farmers would spend the morning moving their sheep. What was different on Bray’s farm was how she did it. Without a motorbike or a truck, she set out on foot over the uneven ground, calling to her dog, Pearl, as the pair guided the flock down through each grassy knoll. Crucially, they paused for the Saxon merino sheep to graze as they went. Sheep prefer to walk uphill and into a prevailing wind; Pearl and her mistress gently directed them elsewhere.
Sometimes the shepherd moved her hands up and down from her sides, like the wings of a bird. The movement of 550 sheep, a dog, and a woman had the air of an intricately choreographed dance. One animal broke ranks to walk closer to Bray; it was Freddie, a sheep she’d bottle-raised from a lamb and one of 30 sheep among Bray’s flock to have names.
That individuals in a sizeable herd of seemingly identical animals can be identifiable to their farmer may be hard to believe, but it’s true, Bray said: “I really do recognize my sheep by their faces.”
With her property surrounded by other historic farms populated, often, by fourth- or fifth-generation farmers, Bray—who is California born and worked as a research scientist before her sudden career change in her late 40s to wool farmer and shepherd—has proved that questioning every accepted wisdom about sheep farming in a country with a storied history in the husbandry can prove beneficial, both financially and in terms of quality. However, her unique method of shepherding garnered suspicion in the local farming community—at least at first.
“For the first few years, I don't think anybody believed I would stick it,” she said of the manner in which she runs her farm. Much of her fine merino wool is spun into fat, richly colored balls of yarn; in addition, she works with conscious fashion brands including Another Tomorrow. “I think what people, at least in that district, have come to respect a bit is the fact that I am making money.”
Questioning accepted wisdom, analysts say, is what Australia’s wool industry needs, even if many longtime farmers are resistant to change. The country was built on a golden age of fleece—for 150 years, wool was its biggest export and revenue raiser. But although the South Pacific nation is still the world’s largest producer of fine wool, the industry has fallen into decline.
In the early 1990s, Australia’s sheep population numbered 170 million. Now it’s 70 million. And for good reason: Drought and bushfires continue to threaten the livelihood of farmers throughout Australia, forcing them to reduce the size of their flock. Wool producers face another set of problems: Disastrous government handling of their affairs in the 1980s and early ’90s collapsed the price of wool from 700 cents per kilogram to 430 cents in 1991, leaving Australian farmers billions of dollars in debt with huge stockpiles of wool; some turned to meat or crop farming, while others fled the industry altogether.
In the past few decades, synthetic fabrics have outstripped the fiber’s popularity in a world where both fast fashion and ethical consumerism are ascendant, increasing the profile of vegan options, such as hemp and cellulose fibers. Now the industry is polarized by a fractious debate about animal welfare, which many farmers say has come much too late. Increasingly, brands and consumers are asking questions about common practices such as mulesing and tail docking, and about the conditions in which sheep are shorn, which was brought to the forefront in 2017 after animal rights activists shared footage of Australian shearers punching and beating sheep.
But in Tasmania, and elsewhere in Australia, a group of farmers—most of their own volition and often without any industry support—are coming up with ways of treating their animals differently and are telling a new story about their wool. They include some of the state’s longest-established farming families as well as relative newcomers like Bray.
I think what people, at least in that district, have come to respect a bit is the fact that I am making money.
When I arrived in Australia, the state of New South Wales was on fire. Traveling through Sydney Airport on my way from New Zealand to Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, the air outside the terminal was apocalyptic—a blanket of smoke so thick and a smell so acrid that it could persuade the primal part of your brain that the fire was right there on the tarmac, even though the nearest blaze was 41 miles away. Workers in Sydney wore masks to protect their airways from particulates, even inside their offices. At the time of publishing this story, at least 20 people had died in the flames, thousands had been evacuated from their homes, and Scott Morrison, the prime minister, was mired in controversy over his decision to go on holiday while his country burned, and for his government’s lack of action on climate change.
Tasmania was spared the ferocity of these fires, although in the month before my arrival in November, the central area of the island state, a farming region, had been struck by snow and bushfires within a week of each other. As this story was being prepared, smaller blazes continued to threaten farms during the summer season.
“Things have become more rapid, at either end of the spectrum,” said James Hallett, who farms nearly 10,000 hectares near Bothwell in the Tasmanian highlands. He and his brother are the fifth generation of Halletts to farm there, but in recent years a $31 million (Australian) irrigation scheme for the area was what had kept farming afloat.
“The cold seems to have gotten colder and the hot’s got hotter,” Hallett said, adding that temperatures on his property sometimes hit 104°F for several days in a row. “We didn’t have that 20 years ago.”
Australia is a dry, sweltering country that has always been bushfire-prone, but this summer season, which concludes at the end of February, was already like nothing analysts had seen before. And its effect on the wool industry has been dramatic. The national clip (or wool crop) was forecast to fall 9.2 percent because the land was so parched that farmers had reduced their numbers of sheep, and those animals they retained did not produce as much wool, according to the Australian Wool Production Forecasting Committee.
The past year’s clip is expected to be the smallest since 1924, when Australia’s wool industry was a fraction of what it is now. Nearly all (98%) of the clip is exported, and three-quarters of that is sent to China, where uncertainty and tensions created by the U.S.-China trade war—America announced in August there would be tariffs on imports of Chinese clothing starting in December—have sparked a drop in the wool price for Australian farmers, despite the drought-induced shortage of the fiber.
Edward Storey, the president of WoolProducers Australia, the top organization representing farmers, said he hoped the price drop was a blip. But the current drought had “bitten here quite hard,” he said.
While merino sheep—the small Spanish breed that has been the source of Australia’s fine wool success to date—fare better in droughts than some other farm animals because they do not need to drink as much, Storey said, the devastating effect of the weather patterns has posed questions the industry must answer. “Being pretty much the driest continent on the planet already, do we have to prepare for more variation and more variability in our climate?” he said. “I think we probably do.”
Wool is the most sustainable, ethical fiber in the world.
Further south in Tasmania, shoring up the wool business against the buffeting of commodity markets is a preoccupation on an island that is proud of its ability to make its own luck. (For example, a major art gallery in Hobart, which has helped turn the city into a tourist draw, was funded by mysterious local multimillionaire David Walsh from his gambling profits. Many Tasmanians feel inspired by the story.)
“We don’t compete, you know, when it comes to producing berries or seafood or wool or whatever it is, we just don't have the scale,” said Alistair Calvert, a wool broker. Calvert, like many people in Tasmania’s wool industry, comes from a farming pedigree. He recalled running up the driveway from the school bus during shearing season, popping into the shearer’s break room to snack on any food remaining from the smoko (a break for tea or perhaps lunch) before rushing in to watch the shearers briskly but carefully at work.
Calvert’s plan to manage a farm changed after he lost an arm in a car accident as a young man. Now he introduces local farmers to brands and processors, often in Italy, who are eager for direct connections with the source of their materials, sometimes visiting Tasmanian farms to see operations for themselves.
“The location obviously works against us a bit too. So we have to do things differently,” Calvert said of Tasmania.
Doing things differently has included pitching fine wool as the sartorial equivalent of a superfood; it is nonitch, antimicrobial, and lightweight. And unlike clothes made of synthetic fabrics, which have overtaken wool in popularity since the 1970s (some estimates suggest 60 percent or more of the global fiber market is nonnatural material, and only 1 to 3 percent is wool), wool garments do not produce plastic fibers that leach into waterways and linger for decades.
Still, the exact carbon footprint of wool, and whether it is better to buy man-made, is the subject of vociferous debate. Wool farming produces methane emissions and, like all farming, requires intensive water use, but the garments it produces are biodegradable, recyclable, and, its advocates say, more likely to last.
Wool is, Edward Storey said, "the most sustainable, ethical fiber in the world."
In 2008, the fast fashion giant H&M announced it would no longer do business with Australian suppliers who used wool from sheep that had been mulesed. A practice that involves the removal of strips of skin from the sheep’s rear end, mulesing is intended to prevent the sheep from being struck by blowflies, which lay their eggs in the folds of the animal’s backside.
At the time, the Australian wool industry had planned to phase out mulesing by 2010, a goal H&M said was too slow. In 2020, it still has not happened, despite neighboring New Zealand rendering the practice illegal. It is almost unfathomable, then, to realize that the practice of mulesing remains one of the Australian industry’s most contentious matters.
It is slowly changing: Alistair Calvert, the broker, said that in Tasmania, 35 to 40 percent of farmers did not mules their sheep—but that only about 12 percent of Australian farmers across the country had stopped doing it. Although the practice is still widespread, the topic remains sensitive; farmers I spoke to were split into two distinct camps: those who seemed eager to mention that they had stopped mulesing and those who would not discuss the matter at all.
“We’re getting to a point where we’re not quite a majority yet,” Calvert said of farmers opposed to the practice in Tasmania. “But we’re getting closer to being able to turn the screws on that a bit.”
Right from the start I wouldn't mules. That landed me in hot water with a whole bunch of people, some of whom felt threatened by it than others.
Leaders in the industry, Calvert said, had ill-served Australian farmers by not emphasising how strongly the global tide had turned against mulesing. For example, Australian Wool Innovation (AWI), the sector’s levying body, had never taken a strong stand against the practice. “They know they’re an organization that survives on levy payers, and the majority of levy payers are still mulesing,” Calvert said. “And if they said, ‘Okay, today’s the day we’re going to stop,’ they would lose people out of the wool industry.”
AWI was not available for an interview but said in an unattributed statement that mulesing had been “for many years, the most effective way to prevent fly-strike in sheep.”
“It provides lifelong protection, ensuring treated sheep do not suffer a slow and painful death,” the statement said, adding that without treatment, as many as 3.5 million Australian lambs would die from fly-strike. It detailed money spent since 2001 on research and development for sheep health and welfare, and said a vaccine for fly-strike was being investigated.
For Nan Bray, the American outsider who caused a stir with her practice of active shepherding, the matter had not been one for lengthy consideration. “Right from the start I wouldn’t mules,” she said. “That landed me in hot water with a whole bunch of people, some of whom felt more threatened by it than others.”
A neighbor running a larger and more commercial operation recently stopped mulesing his sheep. “While you’re at it, you know, you might really seriously think about not docking the tails,” Bray said she told him, keen to put the next idea in his head.
Her concern for animal welfare does not come from soft-heartedness. Previously an ocean scientist, Bray is accustomed to conducting experiments with her flock and preserving those practices that yield better wool and happier sheep.
For one, she allows her animals to live out the span of their natural lives—one sheep, Alice, died at 16, and the oldest in her current flock are 11—rather than sending them to the slaughterhouse at age six or seven when their wool quality is said to decline, as is customary for aging sheep. For another, she allows all of her sheep to move in a single flock, together, rather than separating them into year classes as wool growers usually do. It means there is no need for lambs to be weaned from their mothers at the common cutoff of 12 weeks. This preserves the flock’s intricate social structure, she said.
Even the shepherding—romantic as it is to imagine Bray on a silvery Tasmanian hillside, lunch in her bag, with plans for an afternoon nap next to her sheep as they graze—came about through scientific research. After learning that sheep grazed diverse grasslands like a pharmacy, seeking out compounds in plants that their bodies needed to be well, Bray decided to make it as easy as possible for them to do so.
She also drastically reduced her stock numbers and found the land, the sheep, and the wool fared better with smaller herds.
Perhaps counterintuitively, running fewer sheep has boosted her bottom line. Not only do her premium yarns command premium prices, increasing the value of sheep like Freddie threefold, she believes her sheep are healthier because they are allowed to forage for the plant-based compounds they need and crave.
“That means I can afford to get a vet in to them,” she said. “I can afford to run fewer animals, which allows me to keep the quality up.”
She continued, “Just within the first year of reducing the stocking rate and getting biodiversity back up and consciously moving them into more diverse areas, from that point on, I stopped having to treat my sheep for intestinal parasites.”
Some producers decried the idea that Bray’s efforts could be replicated at scale (one farmer I spoke with referred to Bray’s operation as "pet sheep" with a smile); many large working farms hold tens of thousands of sheep, and not all of them will encounter humans every day. Some of the new animal welfare practices require much closer scrutiny of animals for diseases, and some farmers say they simply do not have the capacity for that.
We're getting to the point where we're not quite a majority yet but we're getting closer to being able to turn the screws on that a bit.
When I called Tasmanian farmers ahead of my trip there, they asked why I wasn’t writing about the wool in my own country, New Zealand, instead. There, a single company, Icebreaker, has achieved global market dominance with advertising images that capture the version of New Zealand that has so successfully promoted the country on the world stage.
“All those sheep standing around on glaciers...,” one Australian farmer told me enviously, referring to the Icebreaker campaigns’ blockbuster appeal.
But the grass is, perhaps, always greener on the other side; A spokesman for Federated Farmers, the New Zealand farmers’ lobby group, said that while fine wool brands in the country had experienced some standout successes, only about 5 percent of the national clip is made up of such quality wool—unlike in Australia.
Most of what New Zealand’s sheep produce is called crossbred wool—the type that makes its way into felt and carpets.
“It’s actually just a cot case,” said the spokesman, Miles Anderson, using a local term similar to basket case—an absolute disaster. “The price being received for our crossbred clip is the lowest it’s ever been.” In fact, it’s “less than the cost for taking the wool off the animals,” he said, saying that New Zealand’s industry had not collaborated well enough on telling their wool story to consumers.
In New South Wales on the mainland, Andrew Ross has studied the Icebreaker story intently to work out the next iteration of this marketing technique. While the New Zealand company produces its outdoors wear in China, Ross is a proponent of bringing manufacturing back to Australia after decades of it streaming overseas to China from both countries.
Ross, who now owns a wool activewear company called Bluey Merino, was a corporate suit with a farmer dad (a dynamic that is increasingly common as the demographic of wool growers ages and their children leave the farm for university and, often, a life outside of agriculture) when he noticed a missed opportunity.
“The tipping point was standing in the middle of winter in my dad’s sheepyards in Guyra, New South Wales, wearing Icebreaker, saying to my dad, who had some of the finest wool in the country, ‘Where does your wool go, Dad?’” Ross said. “And Dad said, ‘To auction.’”
Ross asked his father where the wool went after that, and his father, like most farmers, said he didn’t know. “I said, ‘Really?’” He’d been incredulous.
Now Ross is an evangelist for natural fiber that is grown and processed locally, with a supply chain that is traceable and open to consumer scrutiny. (He consults on shipping logistics for brands including Another Tomorrow.) But offering full transparency could be a double-edged sword, he said.
Some animal rights groups do not believe animals should be farmed for wool at all (the organization PETA commissioned a billboard in 2018 featuring the actor Joaquin Phoenix, smoldering in the middle of a paddock of sheep, with the tagline: “Cruelty Doesn’t Suit Me. Wool Hurts. Wear Vegan.”).
And while those carving out a niche for themselves with top fashion brands, where their farming story is sold as part of the product, engage in an act of transparency that could possibly secure them financial stability for years to come, at times it draws unwanted attention. Ross said it had happened to him: One of the suppliers to his merino company was the subject of an image posted online purportedly showing an act of animal cruelty.
Ross stopped using that supplier while he investigated the incident, but he also removed farmers’ names from his website so they could not be targeted. “We’ve taken their names off, but they’re certified to certain standards,” he said of his suppliers he will not name. “If you want to see that, we’ll share that with you. We’re not going to tell you about the farmer.”
At the heart of Tasmania’s wool farming operations is a small town called Ross, population around 400. It’s the kind of place where they tape your room key to the front door of the hotel in an envelope with your name on it. Like much of the state, Ross is mistily romantic in the early mornings, and by night, it feels at times like the land that time forgot.
There are matching chocolate-box sandstone houses, and in the evenings you can stand in the middle of the main street for minutes at a time before having to step aside for a car. The place (whose name has no connection to the aforementioned Andrew Ross of Bluey Merino) is steeped in history; Tasmania was built by convicts shipped over from the United Kingdom, and the state is big on remembering. Follow the path past the floodlit Ross Uniting Church at the far end of town, and you’ll reach the chillingly named Ross Female Factory, an oppressive place where incarcerated women were forced to work off their sentences.
In the center of town, a signpost points travelers toward famous sheep farms rather than nearby towns. Among them is Beaufront, one of Tasmania’s best-known properties, run by a man who has become—to his bemusement—the face of his own product.
Julian von Bibra is slight with a silvery ponytail and ruefully admits he is the latest in a long line of von Bibras to be hopeless with farm dogs. Instead—leaning out the window of his ute (a car-pickup hybrid) at dusk in a paddock drenched in golden sunlight—he bleats at his sheep to engage with them while his dog, Jess, cavorts unhelpfully back and forth in front of the truck.
“Please don’t write that,” he said. “‘This farmer that maa’s at his sheep.’”
When the Australian fashion brand Country Road came calling at the farm that had been in his family for four generations, it was not only to buy his wool. The brand wanted von Bibra and his wife, Annabel, to feature in a photoshoot.
Under a headline proclaiming them “farming royalty,” von Bibra and his wife became for a moment part of a modern-day marketing machine that says “real” people are preferable to consumers than photos of airbrushed models or celebrities. Von Bibra said he welcomed any extra scrutiny that brought.
“I think we constantly need to question whether what we’re doing is acceptable and whether it is in the best interests of future generations, whether it is in the best interests of our animals,” he said, adding that he had been part of a conversation for farmers and animal rights groups to jointly set welfare standards.
The round-table discussion—with animal rights group Four Paws in Australia—had been “nonthreatening,” von Bibra said, and the group had promised that they were “not going to be targeting our customers.”
But he denied that the animal welfare groups were dragging the wool farmers into new territory; change is already happening. “We’re sort of hoping to be leading in that space rather than at the back of it,” he said.
In addition to his decision to stop mulesing, von Bibra was considering matters including how to make the weaning of lambs from their mothers less stressful and improve mortality rates through deploying scientific and technological advances.
Where Nan Bray’s flock numbers just 550 sheep, von Bibra said scale made new initiatives challenging for many farmers, whose flocks number in the thousands or tens of thousands. But that is no excuse not to try, he said.
“There’s been some big changes in the industry in the last 10 years,” he said. “I think the next 10 are going to be even bigger.”
There is something else about Ross, about its preoccupation with the past: Its recollection of the past goes back only so far. Before British settlers landed in Australia, the country was home to Indigenous communities, many of whom also farmed the land. Nevertheless, the lands were declared empty and given to colonists when the British arrived.
Jamie Lowe, the chief executive of the National Native Title Council, said Australia’s farmlands had been abused and exploited ever since. “Approximately 80 percent of the native flora was wiped out within the first 30 years of farming,” he said. “It’s pretty devastating.“
Unlike in New Zealand, where a treaty has slowly guided the country’s indigenous Māori people to settlements with the government over confiscated land, Australia has no such process. Instead, Aboriginal groups are awarded native title rights to their ancestral lands, which do not give any guaranteed access and are often superseded by the rights of the current landowners. “If we’re going to get something, the farmers are going to have to give something up,” said Lowe.
I think we constantly need to question whether what we're doing is acceptable and whether it is in the best interests of future generations, whether it is in the best interests of our animals.
Julian von Bibra is one of a number of his peers trying to restore the flora on parts of their properties to a landscape of native plants that would have been present before the first European contact. It was not merely a whim, farmers said. Von Bibra said areas of conservation land on his farm had been crucial in ensuring survival through Australia’s always-looming droughts. “We have areas of conservation, and as things get tighter, we often expand those areas rather than use them,” von Bibra said. “It becomes important to not stress the country too much.”
One farmer who shares his preoccupation with the conservation of land and flora is Simon Cameron, the fourth-generation owner of a property called Kingston, which the 68-year-old took over 15 years ago after the death of his father. He came late to running a farm (although he had been involved with the property in some way his whole life). And even though sheep farming was certainly not something he did for the money—he supplies his fine wool to an Australian suit maker, M.J. Bale, which sells a “single source” suit named after Cameron’s property in its retail stores—he had come up with innovative ways of shoring up his bottom line that were the envy of other farmers in the area.
“I’m an old bloke and not very intelligent,” he said, adding that no one had quite been able to put into words for him why preserving biodiversity was so crucial—but he instinctively knew that it was, for his land and for his animals. He sees it most clearly in the breeding of his sheep. “If you just make a few genetic choices, then you have all sorts of issues with your sheep breeding programs,” he said. “Biodiversity, I understand, is important because of the complexity that comes with it.”
Since colonists had settled in Australia, an overwhelming amount of Tasmanian lowland native grasslands species had been “wiped out,” Cameron said. Farmers were increasingly interested in Indigenous ways of knowing about the land, they said, but often that knowledge could be difficult to come by. In the Midlands of Tasmania, where Julian von Bibra’s property, Beaufront, is located, there is “no Aboriginal presence,” he said.
“I’m just squirming in my seat when the Aboriginal community is explaining that, you know, this was their country,” von Bibra said. “Two hundred years ago, they had over 40,000 years of connection. Now, after a hundred years, you know, I feel immensely connected after four generations.”
He has had to confront the fact that he is part of a community responsible for that disenfranchisement, von Bibra said. “It need not be like that.”
I’ve learned—both as a human being and in terms of the animals and the landscape—by observing what’s in front of my eyes.
Rural Tasmania feels worlds away from the carefully curated high streets of Sydney or Melbourne, and most farmers I spoke to demurred when asked about fashion—despite their wool’s being used in some of the world’s most stylish clothing brands. The uniform here is a sturdy cotton drill work shirt with the name of the farm embroidered on the breast pocket, as though you might forget where you are without it.
But occasionally, the chance arises to bridge the gap. For Simon Cameron, that opportunity came when he was in Sydney not long after the suits sourced from his wool first appeared in M.J. Bale clothing stores.
“I went into the shop and asked for a suit,” said Cameron. “And then I said something along the lines of, ‘Well, I heard that you’ve got some single-origin suits, can I see them?’” The shop assistant told Cameron the story of Kingston, where the wool originated—unaware that it was Cameron’s own farm—and fitted him for the suit.
“And just as they’d finished going through the sales routine, which was very thorough, I said, ‘I think there’s something that you ought to know,’” said Cameron, and then divulged his connection to the wool.
“It really gave me a bit of confidence,” he said of having his own product sold back to him. Building a profile for his wool had been part of an attempt to make the economics of sheep farming work; his collaboration with M.J. Bale has now run for three years with a fourth planned. But it was difficult to imagine the finished product before that day.
Standing in the shop, he thought, These guys are really going to give this thing of ours a go.
Back on Nan Bray’s farm, there was no sound apart from the wind screaming around the hills. It wasn’t until I had stood in sheep paddocks on other Tasmanian farms—the air a cacophony of bleating—that I realized Bray’s sheep were utterly silent.
Because she does not separate her flock into year groups, nor lambs from their mothers, she said, there was no need for the sheep to cry out: “Everyone’s already here.”
Bray’s methods of farming had transformed not only her sheep but her as well. Where before she had been frantic to get things done, beating herself up for what she had failed to accomplish—she recalled yelling at sheep,“for God’s sake, just move” in her early years of shepherding, and said only bloody-minded persistence had kept her going—spending time with her animals had helped her find a sense that she works hard enough.
“I think, for instance, one of the things that it has helped me do is stop trying to multitask so much,” she said, recalling her conscious decision early on to not take books or an iPad or knitting with her. She started keeping a journal that listed what she had done each day rather than what she planned to do.
“I’ve learned—both as a human being and in terms of the animals and the landscape—by observing what’s in front of my eyes,” Bray said. “Initially it was about establishing a connection. Now it’s staying with it, not diluting it, not ignoring it.”