Offcuts: When wool and sport collide

While the AFL and NRL seasons might have drawn to a close, with the Ashes kicking off next month Australians won’t have to wait long to quench their thirst for sport.

And may I say thank God for that, because having to fill those empty weekends between footy and cricket season with jobs and chores long neglected through the winter has left me flat as a tack.

If sport is the country’s national pastime, then wool occupies an equally important part of the economy, but the two are more intricately connected than you perhaps realise.

For example, did you know our native game of Australian Rules Football was virtually born from within the wool industry?

I certainly didn’t before entering the world of microns and Merinos with Quality.

One of the great things about taking my first steps in the industry has been learning just how many things Australians hold dear that share deep links with wool.

Sure, I wore my fair share of woollen jumpers (usually way too long and almost covering my shorts) running around as a junior footballer for the mighty South Clare Demons, kicking the frost and dew off the oval on a Saturday morning for the other grades to come.

But before joining the ‘Q’, I had no clue that the idea for Aussie Rules came to Tom Wills while on his father’s sheep station ‘Lexington’ near Moyston, Victoria in the mid-19th century.

Since that time the wool industry and football have been closely linked, so much so that the Woolmark Company and the AFL got together to celebrate the long history between the two by launching the Fibre of Football campaign back in 2014.

One of the campaign’s initiatives was to produce a line of supporter apparel made of 100 per cent Australian Merino wool, with the fibre being used in the retro football jumpers, scarves, gloves and beanies sourced from wool growers all over the country.

Had they known this, I’m sure all those Adelaide Crows supporters who tossed their scarves in bins as they beat a hasty retreat from the MCG on Grand Final Day wouldn’t have done so, out of respect for our wool growers alone.

Fast forward to 2017 and the AFL-licensed apparel now covers all 18 clubs, with manufacturers struggling to keep up with demand for the popular merchandise range spruiked by AFL stars with wool growing links such as Nat Fyfe (Fremantle), Tom Hawkins (Geelong), Bernie Vince (Melbourne) and Luke Breust (Hawthorn).

Just to solidify the connection even further, AFL head honcho Gillon McLachlan grew up on a Merino sheep property near Mt Pleasant in the Adelaide Hills, ‘Rosebank’, which is still operating to this day (and one of our long-term Quality Wool clients might I add).

No prizes for guessing where the idea probably came from then!

Since the game’s beginnings, Australian Rules footballers used to wear woollen jumpers, until wool became too expensive in the 1980s and cheaper acrylic jumpers become a more affordable option for suburban and country grassroots clubs.

However, the wheel has now turned with many football clubs, especially in sheep farming heartlands, returning to woollen jumpers to support local growers.

Switching sports to cricket, where Australia will battle the old foe England in a day/night Ashes test at Adelaide Oval in early-December.

And if it gets a little chilly under lights during the final session of the day’s play, the likes of Steve Smith and David Warner will be able to call upon woollen vests made locally in South Australia using fibre sourced from the state’s wool producers.

In Australian cricket, the distinctive sleeveless vest with the coat of arms emblazoned on the chest and green and gold embroidery around the neckline is as much a part of the game’s folklore in this country as the treasured ‘baggy green’ cap.

So much so that I remember turning up to my first ever day of junior cricket wearing a replica vest, trying to emulate my heroes Steve Waugh and Shane Warne who I’d seen wearing them on television.

At that time I barely knew which end of the bat to hold, but I must have looked the part and that’s all that really matters.

And for the past 40 years, the vests have been manufactured by SA company Silver Fleece, who make the product from start to finish in their Kilkenny knitting mill.

One of the last remaining wool producers in Australia and embracing a paddock-to-jumper philosophy, the company sources their wool from a group of five growers based in SA’s Southern Flinders Ranges.

The company has always used Australian wool in their products, but in early-2016 began using pure South Australian Merino wool to differentiate the brand from international competition.

So whether it be watching our test cricketers take the field in their vests or watching your local footy team run around in woollen jumpers, somewhere in Australia there is probably a grower who shares a deep connection with the clothes on their back.

Kane McKay

Silver Fleece owner Cathy Barton with one of the woollen vests worn by the Australian cricket team, produced and manufactured solely in South Australia. Photo: ABC Rural.