The closure of Oamaru based Summit Wool Spinners has been a media story that has focused on the high New Zealand dollar and the global recession.In reality this is another story about a New Zealand based manufacturer unable to compete on an international stage (or carpet perhaps).
Unfortunately the story is not new but as usual the media enjoy talking about failures rather than success. For example: in 2012 a grower’s initiative Wool Equities bought Quality Yarns in South Otago and renamed it Bruce Woollen Mills. The mill is capable of producing any sort of yarn. Likewise the survival of Milton Woollen mill also based in the South Island and committed to producing locally. No mention of this.
These companies are grower initiatives funded by farmers who understand that to be competitive they need to add value to the raw materials they produce rather than simply sending them to Italy or the UK.
Both of these mills and others are small survivors (some would say relics) of what was once a mighty wool processing industry. Wool processing was big business. Hardly surprising given how many sheep there were.
New Zealand’s first mills were built in the 1870’s in the South Island in places like Mosgiel, Kaiapoi, Roslyn and Oamaru and in the North at Petone, Napier and Onehunga. Prior to that wool had been sent to England for processing (much like it is today). British machinery and know how was imported and wool products were produced. These included fabrics for tweeds, flannels, serge’s and worsteds all of which were used to produce men’s suiting. In Dunedin, Bendix Hallenstein started the New Zealand Clothing Factory in 1873 and sourced most of what he needed locally. Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackelton both used the services of local woollen mills to help them equip for their heroic adventures.
The industry boomed on the back of two world wars and struggled through a great depression and the removal of import protections which led to its eventual demise.
Internationally the recent resurgence in bespoke weaving has been significant. In the United Kingdom companies like Harris Tweed, Reid and Taylor, John Foster, Fox Flannels, Holland and Sherry to name a handful, are producing yarns that sell for a premium due to their luxurious handle and authenticity, a back lash in some ways to mass production. I have spoken about them all at some length on my Dispatch.
Many of these mills use “old” technology similar to the Boilers, Carders, Mules and Spindles imported here 150 years ago.
Peter Radford from Escorial Group is a farmer, raised in the South Island whose own initiative is developing a luxury fibre that is being used by all of the top Menswear Designers from Dunhill to Brooks Brothers, Brioni and (in a small way) ourselves. He grows his wool here and has it processed in the UK and woven by some of the mills I have mentioned. He controls the entire process producing some of the world’s finest yarns. Unfortunately he cannot get them made in New Zealand.
How big is the opportunity we have let slip and how much value would a successful weaving industry add to the New Zealand economy and balance of payments.
When are we going to stop blaming successive governments for failures that we all have to play a part in avoiding happening.