A positive spin on wool

A positive spin on wool


Wool
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This woman is a self-appointed mouthpiece for the wool pipeline, showcasing it from farmers, through to shearers, wool handlers, and even brokers by posting photographs and blog stories on her website, The Truth About Wool, and Instagram and Facebook pages.

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Chantel McAlister is travelling around Australia with her trusty camera, partner Jason Murray and their son Travis, 1, in a bid to raise the profile of the wool industry. Photograph by the Real Deal Photography.

Chantel McAlister is travelling around Australia with her trusty camera, partner Jason Murray and their son Travis, 1, in a bid to raise the profile of the wool industry. Photograph by the Real Deal Photography.

Wartaka, Iron Knob, South Australia. All photographs by Chantel McAlister.

Wartaka, Iron Knob, South Australia. All photographs by Chantel McAlister.

Neal Kleinschmidt, captured in action on the boards at 'Currajong Station', Gore, Queensland.

Neal Kleinschmidt, captured in action on the boards at 'Currajong Station', Gore, Queensland.

Matt Haines at 'Madura Plains', Madura, WA.

Matt Haines at 'Madura Plains', Madura, WA.

FOR members of the farming community, the virtues of wool and woollen products are well known.

But beyond that there has been a constant battle to promote the natural fibre to the broader public.

One of those blissfully unaware of what it takes to produce the fibre up until 12 years ago was Chantel McAlister who has now become one of the industry's biggest allies in helping promote wool to the wider community.

The 35-year-old is a self-appointed mouthpiece for the wool pipeline, showcasing it from farmers, through to shearers, wool handlers, and even brokers by posting photographs and blog stories on her website, The Truth About Wool, and Instagram and Facebook pages.

Growing up in Brisbane, Queensland, Chantel was a self-confessed city girl who knew nothing about farming and running sheep, or the wool industry in general.

That was until fate intervened and she met her partner and "baby daddy" Jason Murray while working in a roadhouse near Toowoomba.

A shearer by trade, Jason's family had a property near Meandarra in Queensland where they ran Merinos, and it was visiting there that Ms McAlister had her first taste of the wool industry.

"I helped out during shearing at the family property and absolutely loved it - I love animals, and shearing all seemed pretty easy going and fun," Ms McAlister said.

"I thought 'how good is this, you get to hang out with the shearing team and have fun, and play with wool all day'."

So Ms McAlister contacted the shearing contractor and joined the team as a wool handler, gaining her woolclassing stencil two years later - and in 2014 becoming a master classer.

She and Jason spent 11 months of the year travelling around Queensland and northern New South Wales, working with shearing teams, and on the weekends Chantel would practice her photography which often involved annoying sheep on the property where they were based.

Through being a part of the shearing team, Chantel discovered more and more about wool, and what an amazing fibre it was, and how the pieces of the industry jigsaw all fit together.

She was alarmed by what she perceived to be a lack of self-promotion, and as a result of her growing love affair with the fibre, took it upon herself to showcase it to as many people as possible.

"The more I've learnt about it and become more involved, the more I've come to love the wool industry," Ms McAlister said.

"And I really want to help to promote it - we need to get more information about it out there.

"Farmers are so busy in agriculture, and in wool, that they don't promote themselves."

Having grown up in a city she knew just how little information filtered through about wool or the industry, and was passionate about changing that.

"I have the benefit of being able to see it from both ends of the spectrum and I don't have an agenda," she said.

"I have fallen in love with the industry and want everyone else to have the chance to have a love affair with wool."

In 2016, when misinformation was damaging the reputation of Australian wool, the talented self-taught photographer put together three videos explaining crutching, shearing and woolhandling.

These were posted online and have passed 800,000 views.

Ms McAlister also started posting photographs she had taken of her shearing team peers and telling their stories on various social media chanels.

Then in January 2017 she took it one step further, embarking on a nationwide 'The Truth About Wool' tour aimed at flooding the online community with "honest, positive images and stories from (the wool) industry".

Over three staggered months she travelled through New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and WA, returning to Queensland in between stints to earn money to keep the largely self-funded tour going.

Falling pregnant in August 2017 put the tour on the backburner temporarily, but only a few weeks after giving birth to son Travis in March, 2018, Ms McAlister resumed her mission.

This time she is not flying solo, with Jason, Travis and their dog Mia joining her on the road and the little family lives out of a 6.7 metre caravan as they travel from shed to shed.

The stable 11 months of work in Queensland and northern NSW she and Jason enjoyed previously has dried up as a result of the drought, leading to destocking or reduced flock numbers on many properties, but Jason has managed to secure a spot with shearing contractor Essential Shearing, based out of Deniliquin.

"We had reached a crossroad where we either had to look at getting office jobs, or buy a caravan and continue to do what we love," she said.

This has taken them to various properties around Australia, with Jason shearing and working as a wool presser and Ms McAlister being a full-time mum to Travis, but with the added bonus of being able to walk out the door of the caravan and continue her photography and wool promotion.

"I have been blessed that all of my work has been on the doorstep, I've been able to just wander over to the sheds and take photos," she said.

"I'm so lucky that they've gone hand-in-hand."

Ms McAlister said she was surprised at just how much she has missed working in the shearing sheds.

"I just love working with wool, it's such a beautiful fibre and I also didn't realise just how fit I was - I was the fittest I'd been in my life," she said.

When Ripe spoke to her they were on route to Naracoorte, around 300 kilometres south-east of Adelaide near the South Australia-Victoria border, having just completed a six-week stint near Yunta in the north-east of the State.

As they approach the quieter shearing months, and with Travis now 13 months old, Ms McAlister is excited to be swapping roles with Jason and him filling the parenting role while she gets behind the lens full-time as she continues her national tour.

While Ms McAlister said it was an amazing way of life that she hoped would continue for a long time yet, she had never made money from posting her wool stories.

To help bring in an income to keep them on the road, she had organised a number of photography workshops, where she would impart knowledge gleaned from more than a decade of using her trusty Canon camera.

She would also continue to visit wool growing properties and document their stories, and hoped that would include spending more time in WA.

Ms McAlister said she loved being able to tell stories through her photographs and writing that may not otherwise be heard - something that was a privilege but also something she also found quite sad, to think some of the stories might not otherwise have been told.

"These woolgrowers just carry on doing their day-to-day work, so I see it as being a bit of a service by being able to put a spotlight on them," she said.

"I love creating and writing, and meeting my peers, all those warm and fuzzies.

"I like that it gives them some recognition, they are just so resilient, and I see it as a way of being able to give back, because it is just incredible what they are doing out there - it's not just an everyday job."

While Ms McAlister loved taking photographs during shearing, she preferred to visit farms at a quieter time when she could do it justice.

She finds it hard to pick favourites from the numerous properties she has visited, but counts a recent stint at Madura Plains, an 800,000 hectare station 700km east of Kalgoorlie, as one of her most memorable.

Ms McAlister was there for their shearing from January to March this year, witnessing more than 53,000 Merinos being handled at what is the third-biggest sheep station in Australia.

"It was just mindblowing," she said.

"In Queensland, the average mob size is between 3000 and 5000 head, which is what I was used to working with and seeing those farming practices.

"I was really interested to see how such a big operation would work, and it was so incredible - every single sheep was handled individually and looked at."

Another standout was visiting White Gum wool in the highlands of Tasmania, where Nan Bray tends to a small ethically-run superfine Merino flock that produce fleeces which are then turned into a premium yarn.

Instagram is one of the most effective mediums for Ms McAlister to use due to its visual nature, and her Chantelrenaephotography page has more than 10,000 followers.

She loved getting messages from people working within the wool industry.

"They are really grateful for what I am doing, and I think it's because I am authentic and not doing it from a financial standpoint," Ms McAlister said.

"I love the industry so much, and can see that it needs a voice.

"The story of wool as a whole has so many different aspects, with so many vastly different roles working for the one end goal.

"I feel like this is the only industry that has its own story like that, its own culture.

"It almost feels like a patriotic thing to be a part of, because it has played such a big role in the history of our country, and I'm really proud to help tell its stories."

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