When I was expecting my daughter, I began what I thought would be an easy task: finding a beautiful blanket for her cot. Though really, I didn’t want just beautiful. I wanted perfect. I wanted her blanket to be soft, luxurious to her skin. I wanted it to be made of a natural fibre. I insisted that it be safe (read non-allergenic and fire-retardant). Like most of my friends, I am concerned about my environmental footprint, so I wanted it to come from a sustainable and renewable source. I wanted her blanket to look beautiful, too – and ideally not be pale pink. I was prepared to seek out the best, rather than the one all my friends seemed to be buying. And lastly, I wanted it to be made in Australia.
I started my quest by examining my choice of fabric. The thought of wrapping her in petroleum by-product polyester made me shudder. I don’t like the feel of polyester, and synthetic fibres are notoriously flammable. My natural instinct was to look for a wool blanket, so I began researching wool.
Wool is a first choice for many of us here in Australia. I wondered, why? It turns out that we prefer wool for a number of reasons. For one thing, wool provides instant warmth. It’s water-resistant, it’s breathable, and it wicks away moisture. How does all this work? I suppose it stands to reason: sheep live outdoors in all weather conditions, wet and dry, hot and cold. Sheep have hair (yes, wool is hair, which is why it grows and needs cutting, unlike fur, which sheds). And this fleece has evolved to keep them warm but not too hot, and to prevent them from getting too cold when it rains. The individual hairs in wool actually move moisture away from their bodies, allowing their wet fleece to dry quickly after rain. When sheep fleece becomes a garment or a blanket, this moisture-wicking capability means a sweaty baby dries off quickly.
Moisture-wicking wool offers other advantages: the environment under a wool blanket is demonstrably less humid than say under a feather doona or a synthetic fabric. How does this translate into a benefit? A major source of allergies and asthma in babies and adults alike is the ever-present dust mite. I discovered that dust mites thrive best in a moist environment. Wool’s moisture-wicking ability makes it harder for dust mites to proliferate. Another plus! Plus wool fibres are more bendable and resilient than, say, rayon. That means wool stands up to repeated washing and holds it shape, key features in my ideal baby blanket.
What about sustainability? Clearly, wool is a renewable source of fabric -- every sheep farmer relies on that clip, several times a year. And sheep live all over Australia: no forests would be logged to produce that blanket.
I thought back to those scratchy singlets of our childhood. Could wool be comfy, cosy, luxuriously soft against her skin? My research led me to a study of microns. That’s how the diameter of an individual wool fibre is measured. And the finer the wool, the lower the micron, and the higher the comfort level. So that is why higher-micron wool is used for carpets and army greatcoats, and the finer microns go into finely tailored Italian suits. Handy information for evaluating any natural fibre, be it wool, cashmere, angora, or mohair! Specifically, 22 microns or less means a soft and silky feel.
I was sold. Wool it would be. And Australian Merino Wool at that. As the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ website notes, “it is widely accepted that Australia produces the world’s best quality wool fibre: Australian merino wool… No other breed can match the fineness and softness of the fleece produced by Australian Merino.”
I turned to where I would buy her blanket. Wool being so Australian, I thought that I’d have a range of choices in finding a retailer that buys its own wool and turns it into woven products on site in Australia.
Not so. It turns out that nowadays, most of Australia’s wool clip is sent off-shore to be processed, spun, woven, and then shipped back to us as finished products. Wool production in Australia accounted for 56 percent of the value of all agricultural industries in the early 1950s. With the advent of synthetics, much cheaper to produce, wool dropped in 1998 to 3 percent of total world fibre consumption.
And this meant woollen mills all around Australian were forced to close their doors. I wondered if there was anywhere left that produces in Australia. That’s when I found Waverley Mills, located in Launceston, Tasmania. To my shock, I found that while other mills produce yarn, Waverley Mills is the last fully functioning woollen mill in all of Australia, meaning a mill that cards, spins, dyes, weaves, and finishes, all under the one roof.
More research was needed (my daughter wasn’t born yet, so I still had a bit of time). Digging deeper into Waverley’s history was surprisingly easy. “The Outcome of Enterprise: Launceston’s Waverley Woollen Mills,” written by Julian Burgess and published by the Friends of the Library, Launceston, in 2009, details the history of the mill from its founding in 1874 through to the present day. I discovered that Governor Macquarie as early as the 1820s was calling to support the Australian wool industry, and that the Tasmanian Parliament passed the Bonus Act in 1869, offering a prize of £1000 to the first to open a woollen mill in Tasmania. Enter Scotsman Peter Bulman, who migrated to Tasmania in 1870, bought the land, built the factory, procured the equipment, trained the staff – and won the prize in 1874.
Waverley invented the water-resistant Bluey Cloth in the 1880s, and pioneered electric blankets in the 1960s. More recently, in the 1980s, Waverley held the contract for the blankets on all Qantas aircraft.
Mention Waverley to my mother’s generation, and everyone seems to have a Waverley blanket on a bed. These products are made to last! And I was astonished to find that the Australian government commissioned a special Waverley baby blanket as their gift to Princess Charlotte!
Off to Waverley’s website. I discovered more about the mill, including Waverley’s historical relationships with suppliers and the community. I found that Waverley produces a range of baby blankets. Some are woven from 100% Tasmanian superfine merino wool, soft and cosy against her skin. It turns out that Tasmania’s cooler climate is perfect for slow-growing 22-micron merino wool.
Other Waverley baby blankets blend superfine wool with Pima cotton. All their products are 100% natural, made from fibres sourced right here in Australia. With contemporary styling, in a choice of traditional and non-traditional baby colours, her blankets came with a lifetime warranty!
Fast forward to today. Camille sleeps under her Waverley blanket year-round. And whilst it can be tough to find baby wear that goes beyond traditional pale blue or pale pink, another of my blanket criteria was met: My daughter sleeps under a contemporary design in shades of muted grey.
And as she sleeps warm in winter, cool in summer, I am pleased to think that by buying a locally produced product, I am directly contributing to the chain of craftspeople, from wool farmers to carders, dyers and weavers who made the luxuriously soft blanket in my daughter’s cot today.