by Morna Mcllraith and Danielle Curnoe
Better than the Birthday
When first faced with the problem of what to wear, Adam and Eve donned
a fig leaf. Prehistoric cave dwellers draped themselves with animal
furs. By 2000 BC Fred Flintstone and his Stone Age kin had begun to
tan the skins to make them softer. Then cut and shaped them and stitched
them together with needles of reindeer or mammoth bone. It was not until
the Bronze Age (1000-450 BC) that clothes were first made of woven cloth,
from course thread spun from wool or flax.
When the Romans settled Britain in AD 43 they brought with them their
love of wool, in the form of the toga. Made from a semi circle of fine
white woollen cloth, the toga worn by men of high rank, was a garment
so *****bersome that it made active work impossible.
‘When in Rome ‘
This Roman legacy is evident here in Australia where sheep farming has
a long and lucrative history. Historical figures like John Macarthur
are legendary and the positive attributes of the woollen thread have
been ingrained into our collective psyche. It’s true.
Wool is a biodegradable natural fibre, but what has been the real cost
of riding on the sheep’s back to this arid landscape and to the
Young children might be alarmed to discover that ‘baa baa black
sheep’ might actually have perished soon after an untimely gift
of three bags full. Domestic sheep here are shorn in spring, after lambing,
and before the time for the natural shedding of their winter coats.
An estimated one million sheep die from exposure in Australia each year
as a result of premature shearing. (1)
Who’s Tending The Flock?
The biblical days of the caring relationship between a shepherd and
his small flock are ancient history. Modern Australian sheep often range
over wide expanses, and for every farmhand there are 2,000 sheep! About
ten million lambs die every year (before they are more than a few days
old) because of these unmanageable stock numbers. (2)
Black Sheep of The Family
According to the Brambell Report into sheep husbandry, “sheep...
have all the behaviour patterns associated with a highly organized family
and clan structure, appropriate for ranging over wild and desolate county”.
Something to Bleat about
Too much rain and the rot can set in - skin rot and foot rot that is
- and these afflictions are as painful and distressing as they sound.
The slow consumption of the flesh by thousands of swarming maggots -
known as fly strike - is another hidden hazard of the Australian bush.
This phenomenon is not a pretty sight and results in millions of lingering
sheep deaths each year. (4)
Prevention Better than Cure?
For those who fancy that prevention is better than cure, there’s
‘mulesing’ - the stockman’s answer to removing those
nuisance folds of skin beneath the tail where moisture attracts the
flies. Simply make two cuts down the tail with multipurpose shears,
two beside the anus, then to the vulva and finally across the top of
the tail (no anaesthetic required). The people of the UK have demonstrated
their wisdom in banning the technique there. The merino is selectively
bred to carry half it’s weight in wool, creating an increase in
the number of folds of skin, and is consequently particularly susceptible
to fly strike. To honestly consider prevention is to recognise the counter-productivity
of grazing an introduced animal inherently unsuited to the Australian
Getting the Lamb Chop
Life in the back paddock might have its drawbacks, but the occasional
encounter with a stockman isn’t necessarily a barrel of laughs
either. Anaesthesia isn’t a popular practice where farm animals
are concerned. It’s comparatively expensive and time-consuming,
so dehorning, castration and docking (tail removal) are all performed
The Golden Fleece
Mary’s little lamb probably enjoyed going to school one day, but
for an increasing number of unfortunate sheep who are reared for ‘superfine’
wool, the experience of being indoors isn’t a pleasant one. For
a start, their confinement to indoor single or group pens is permanent,
their social and physical needs denied in the pursuit of a more expensive
Lambs to the Slaughter
All the sheep (even the ones you count to get to sleep) end up at the
abattoir - every last one. Past their wool-producing prime and it’s
off to the meat market - or if they really draw the short straw there’s
the holiday to end all lifetimes aboard an overcrowded and filthy liner
bound for the Middle East. Sheep for meat are bred from merino cross
animals and become lamb chops directly.
The Environment And Ewe
When the first immigrant sheep arrived in Australia with the First Fleet
little thought was given to the impact these hard-hoofed animals would
have on the land. But by 1939, concerns were being raised about their
environmental consequences. (5)
Nevertheless these cloven-footed foreigners continue to play their part
in the compacting of the topsoil and consequent topsoil loss. The timbered
uplands cleared for sheep grazing, in particular, have suc*****bed to
Making wool is a thirsty business, too. According to a recent report
by the CSIRO the production of 1kg of meat requires 50-1000 litres of
water, while producing 1kg of wool consumes even more - a massive 170,000.
About five million kangaroos are killed each year in the name of the
protection of the wool industry - national symbol one minute, vermin
the next? In the meantime the yellow footed rock wallaby has become
endangered because its favoured native plants have been devoured by
the sheep. Other natives too have lost the competition for food on Australian
pastures where we hold the world record for the rate of mammal extinctions.
So would the fabric of our society fall apart if we were to do without
wool? There is a compelling argument that we should in view of the cruelties
which these gentle creatures endure, their impact on the land, and the
‘Just a Cotton Pickin’ Minute’
Plant-based fibres no doubt hold the key to truly sustainable and animal
friendly fashion. Cotton’s advantages are it’s biodegradability,
versatility and the fact that no farm animal has suffered in the making.
Cotton breathes in summer and warms in winter, in the guise of thermal
underwear, corduroy and flannelette. Unfortunately though, cotton is
a vulnerable plant much loved by the cotton bowl worm and other small
cotton specific ‘critters’. Cotton grown conventionally in
NSW requires the application of 14 different pesticides. In 1988 one
third of the world’s insecticide arsenal was employed to keep the
cotton crop standing. (8) Organically grown cotton, on the other hand,
satisfies all the criteria for a people, planet and animal-friendly
Advances in technology and two world wars brought great changes to textiles.
New synthetic fabrics made clothing more lightweight and easier to wash.
Terylene and nylon, both polyesters (oil or coal derivatives) emerged
from the Second World War. (Nylon stockings were first fashioned from
the same material as parachutes). Polyesters will break down with a
combination of sunlight and moisture, but don’t readily biodegrade
in the darkness of landfill. Rayon (viscose), although usually made
from wood pulp, doesn’t readily degrade either, because the molecules
have been mysteriously rearranged.
‘Clothed in purple and fine linen’
Linen and candle wicks are made from flax, a robust plant which requires
little maintenance. Flaxen thread is environmentally friendly and high
quality, and often has a price tag to match. The seedpods of flax are
the source of linseed.
‘What hemp homespuns are swaggering here?’
Hemp: “an annual herbaceous plant cultivated for it’s valuable
fibre” - The Oxford Dictionary.
There is wide diversity within the cannabis family. Unlike it’s
illegal and soporific cousin, hemp grown for fibre has a THC level too
low to have any narcotic effect. The hemp plant is extremely hardy and
requires no fertiliser. It has no natural enemy apart from the hemp
moth which is rare in Australia. Trials are underway to determine which
cannabis variety is best suited to the Australian environment.
According to Steven Jones, BSc. who has been researching the subject
for the last 15 years, it’s cultivation here is being unfairly
hindered. This is presumably because of the seedy reputation of the
Hemp is grown in France, Belgium and most of Europe where some of the
finest ‘linen’ is made from it. In California hemp lingerie
is haute couture. Even silk can be mimicked by this ancient and versatile
fibre. Only a limited number of hemp garments are currently available
Making a Silk Purse out of a Sow’s Ear
Silk is made from the cocoon spun by the caterpillar of the mulberry
feeding moth. The larvae have an irritating habit of chewing their way
out and damaging the filaments. For their trouble they are cooked alive,
steamed or roasted. Although silk is a natural fibre, this aspect of
proceedings does dull the lustre of the fabric for some people.
Is it philosophically possible to divorce animal concerns from environmental
ones anyway? To really understand the environment requires empathy with
its living things, both domestic and wild - not a detached and scientific
insight into their place in nature’s mechanisms, but the appreciation
of each creature as an unique and conscious individual. Only from this
viewpoint can humanity learn to share the planet in a respectful and
truly civilised way.
3. Townend, C, Pulling the Wool, Hale and Iremonger, 1985.
4. Action magazine, Summer 1997.
5. Waldham, S, Wilson, K, Land Utilization in Australia, third edition,
Melbourne University Press, 1957.
6. Meyer, Prof. W., ‘Programme Leader for Sustainable Agriculture’,
CSIRO Land and Water Div., 1998.
8. Murray, Dr David, PhD, Plant manipulation specialist, 1998.
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