Written by Kylie Photograph taken from https://waverleymills.com/pages/our-story
On Friday 6th October, a group of 26 spinners, weavers, dyers, embroiderers and several friends and relations met outside the historic headquarters of the 150 year old Waverly Woollen Mills in Launceston for a tour of the factory. The company kindly provided two tour guides, Penny, the leader and Kristie. The tour began with Penny giving a history of the company which was established by Scottish migrant, Peter Bulman, in 1874. Recognising an opportunity for business in the wool industry, he obtained a government grant and established a woollen mill beside Distillery Creek on the outskirts of Launceston. This was the source of the original power to the mill through a large water wheel and also water for the scouring of merino fleeces. The raw material was obtained from the sheep farms in the Midlands. Peter Bulman died in 1896 and the company passed to his brother-in-law Robert Hogarth and was owned by generations of the Hogarth family up until 1981. Several proprietors followed until the present day, the company continuing to be Australian owned.
Waverly Woollen Mills has always processed woollen fibre into cloth beginning with blankets, serges, shawls and flannels according to market needs of the time. Today the company concentrates on rugs, throws, blankets and scarves and more recently, fabric from recycled jeans blended with merino fleece. Scouring is no longer done at the factory with scoured fleece being imported from Victoria.
Following this interesting opening, the group visited the company’s retail outlet to view the different products currently being manufactured from the raw materials, including alpaca fleece. From the store, the tour moved to an adjacent modern factory building where at the time of this tour, recycled jeans fabric was being combined with merino fleece.
The carding process is where the shredded cotton and wool mix is separated into fibres which are then aligned to form a thick fluff in a continuous wadding. This is then fed through a machine which separates the wadding into several strands, pushed through funnels, reducing in thickness until the strands can be wound onto cones. At this stage the yarn has no tensile strength. A separate machine then twists the single strands of fibre onto bobbins ready for the dyeing and weaving process. The recycled product the group witnessed was a mixture of 70/30 wool to recycled jeans fibre.
From this facility the tour moved back to the original factory, currently undergoing a $10M redevelopment. Here the group saw the dyed yarns being wound onto a large, wide bobbin in the length and colours determined by the end fabric ordered. This bobbin was then rolled through to the weaving section, a process familiar to most of the weaving group but none the less impressive due to the scale, complexity and speed of the ten shaft looms. The machines, while following the principles of warp and weft are staggering in their complexity and in some cases, their vintage.
Dyeing involves unwinding the cones to form hanks of yarn which then move to a separate area to be coloured and dried before being rewound onto the cones for threading through the heddles. Single colour blankets are dyed when woven. Synthetic dyes are used because of their consistency and stability. Throughout the mill new threads are always joined to the previous batch for efficiency to avoid re-threading the machines. The group was shown a machine producing fringes for throws where a 10cm section of unwoven warp is cut and fringed in seconds.
Another machine was making boucle yarn tops from 78% alpaca fleece, 20% merino and 2% nylon, plied and knotted. A central core of fine nylon thread gives the boucle the required tensile strength. Woven woollen and recycled fabric, called griege cloth, is closely inspected against a light to pick up and repair any faults before it is washed in hot water and dried to shrink, and tighten the weave. Blankets pass through a raising machine which uses finely spiked rollers to bring up the pile or fluffiness. Products are then packed and made ready for distribution.
The Waverly Woollen Mills is Australian owned, the oldest weaving mill and the last blanket weaving mill in the country.
At the conclusion of the tour, Kylie, on behalf of Guild members and the other participants offered sincere thanks and appreciation to our hosts, Penny, who provided the interesting and very informative commentary, and Kristie, who ensured that our tour group was always kept safe and together. The group responded with acclamation and finally made a beeline for the retail outlet where the locally crafted, high quality products were irresistible.