THE history of wool in the Great Southern is being celebrated in a multi-form exhibition being staged at the Vancouver Arts Centre in Albany.
The relationship between Albany and wool dates back to when the Amity sailed into King George Sound in 1826 with a single ram and a number of ewes included in its cargo.
By the 1830s there were larger numbers of sheep being imported to Australia through Albany, with many making their way to the Kojonup district.
Problems with the native bush and plants of a poisonous nature made sheep farming challenging in those years, but once settlers realised this and removed these plants, the sheep industry was flourishing.
By 1880, wool was the major export product for the region and for WA.
Such was the vibrancy of the industry that in 1925 the Albany Worsted and Woollen Mill was officially opened.
By 1930 the Mill was employing more than 100 people and producing many thousands of metres of worsted cloth and flannel as well as rugs and blankets.
The business struggled during the Depression years, but was revived during World War II making blankets and uniforms to supply the Australian Army.
In the 1970s the Mill was purchased by the late Robert Holmes à Court who changed its focus to producing carpet yarn. It grew to become Australia’s biggest carpet yarn spinning mill with an annual turnover of $30 million.
In 1988 the Mill was bought by a local consortium, comprising mill management employees and other local investors. The Mill struggled and by early 1996 had closed.
In late 1996, the State Government supported a bid by Nobel Investments, a South East Asia textile company to keep operating the facility.
The company received a $4m incentive package including an interest free loan over five years.
This enabled it to operate for several more years but in the late 1990s it closed its doors for good.
According to curator of the exhibition, Annette Davis the aim of the project was to celebrate the history and culture of wool in Albany.
“The idea really grew from some of the groups that we have working out of the Vancouver Arts Centre,” Ms Davis said.
“We have had felters, spinners and weavers meeting and working out of the arts centre for many years now.
“From conversations with them you realise that they have actually been meeting for so long that they have lived through each other’s life milestones, such as marriage, children, death and so on.
“The thing that brought them together was their love of the craft they are involved in and central to that is the wool they use.
“So it was decided to build a project around these key groups and as we explored the concept we realised that it needed to encompass the beginning of the wool chain, the shearing and shearers, to the Woollen Mill and Albany Wool stores history, right through to the end products that can be produced using the fibre.
“If you have lived in Albany for a long time, you would also know people who worked at the woollen mill and that connection between all those stories became the basis for the exhibition.
“There is also a comprehensive history of the woollen mill and the Albany Wool Stores included in the exhibition for people to view.”
Ms Davis said given the nature of the fibre and the need to really feel the wool, she wanted to make the exhibition a tactile experience.
“I had this vision of people coming in and being enveloped by wool and having wool all around them,” she said.
“That initial idea directed how things flowed and what to include and knowing what people do with wool and it all went from there.
“I am hoping people come in and have an experience of being surrounded by wool and are excited by it.”
The exhibition opened on Saturday, May 6, to coincide with the Vancouver Street Festival.
Ms Davis said the first day attracted a large crowd to the exhibition.
“People seemed really excited by it, I don’t think they knew what to expect but they are responding positively to it, which is pleasing,” she said.
The exhibition runs at the Vancouver Arts Centre until Saturday, June 10.