FOR decades SA's regions have worked hard to put their wine and food on the map, be it a Clare Valley Riesling, a Coonawarra Cabernet or Coffin Bay oysters.
Australian Wool Network is making inroads achieving this same regional provenance with wool.
In the past five years, its Direct Network Advantage program has been helping woolgrowers in SA, Vic, NSW, WA and Tas showcase the regions where their flocks are raised, their love of the land and their care for their animals.
A group of Kangaroo Island growers were the first to see their wool manufactured into luxury MerinoSnug garments, made from wool and possum fur.
The Kangaroo Island Wool group approached AWN soon after it entered a joint venture with Vic knitwear manufacturer Hysport, and their garments have been available on the island and further afield ever since.
KI's success spawned the expansion of the DNA program to the Flinders and Outback, the Barossa and the Limestone Coast, as well as several interstate brands producing jumpers, beanies, scarves, gloves and throws featuring local artists' designs under the Only Merino, Merino Snug and Hedrena brands.
AWN state manager Rod Miller says SA has a particularly strong belief in the 'grower to garment' concept.
"Going back and forth on the ferry on my KI trips, I would see the brochures for the different regions across the state - I realised we already had well-defined tourism regions to be able to fit in with," he said.
Potential purchasers can scan QR readers on the swing tags attached to garments and play short videos.
Mr Miller says COVID-19 has put a big dent in sales of the premium garments, which are available through more than 200 retailers across Australia, including Fella Hamilton stores.
Many of these stockists are in tourist hotspots such as The Rocks in Sydney or Hahndorf, which are reeling from an absence of international travellers, but he says there has been an upturn in online sales on the Merino & Co website during the pandemic.
Mr Miller says there is no minimum number of bales required to be involved in the DNA program and while not exclusively non-mulesed wool is being used, he says growers must prove they are using pain relief if mulesing, along with good environmental stewardship and high animal welfare standards.
"It could be a 20 bale or a 200 bale clip - we look at the test results and see what fits with the order we have. It is generally about 10 per cent of production and for wools we purchase we pay a premium in the marketplace," he said.
There are 16 processing types that use Merino fleece, lambs' wool, pieces and bellies and once the wool is selected for an order it takes about four months to be turned into next-to-skin wear or outer layers.
Aside from the pride many growers feel about having their wool available locally, Mr Miller says another big advantage of the DNA program is the direct feedback.
"We have seen growers really thinking about what they need to do to meet specifications rather than just putting the wool in a bale, from how they feed their sheep to changing their shearing time and rotation of paddocks to keep vegetable matter down," he said.
The DNA program has also extended to large individual growers, including AJ&PA McBride, which is in the process of producing knitwear to commemorate the family-owned company's centenary in wool.
Plans are also well under way to bring three more SA woolgrowing areas into the DNA program.
The Eyre Peninsula brand is set to be launched in Port Lincoln on Wednesday, October 21 with strong grower interest, and filming will occur at several spectacular locations in the Coorong and Mid North to help promote the Coorong Wilderness and Goyder's Run DNA brands also soon to be launched.
Mr Miller sees the future for the premium woollen products produced from the regions being overseas, particularly China.
Consumers are looking for traceability and after where we are now, provenance and integrity of a garment will be even more sought after.
He is excited that AWN has formed a joint venture with Perth-based Australia China Link, which will see manufacturing moved across the country later this year.
"It is the way forward, giving a greater connection into China and also broadening Australian markets, but it will still have the Australian made tag, which is just as important to customers," he said.
"Consumers are looking for traceability and after where we are now, provenance and integrity of a garment will be even more sought after."
KI growers hope for rebound in sales
Kangaroo Island Wool chairperson Christine Berry loves wearing a neck scarf, gloves or another garment knowing it is made from the natural fibre grown on her MacGillivray property or by one of the island's other woolgrowers.
Mrs Berry and her family are among 24 shareholders of KI Wool, which was formed in 2011.
One of the group's ideas was to value-add their wool, promoting the unique landscape they farm in.
'We wanted to raise the profile of woolgrowing on the island," she said.
"KI is the birthplace of the state's sheep and wool industry and it is still the island's biggest economy driver, with about 600,000 sheep on the island."
Mrs Berry says connecting with manufacturers through Australian Wool Network has helped growers produce specified higher quality wool.
"We understand what they require - why they are looking for a particular (staple) strength, length or micron and there is an incentive there to ensure we are producing the right types that they want," she said.
"But it works both ways in that they understand our business better too."
Mrs Berry says wool sales into the Direct Network Advantage program have been pretty stable in the past four to five years, with nearly all members having at least a line or two of wool from each shearing go into the brand.
She said garment sales had been growing at outlets across the island until the devastating bushfires and COVID-19 travel restrictions this year, but the grower group has turned its focus to online sales.
- Details: kangarooislandwool.com
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