Fibreshed knitalong: the middle

New year, ongoing project. We had our second Knitalong meetup last weekend. Emily Cunetto, designer of the Radiata pattern joined us. We shared our progress and talked about local clothes.

Our progress

We’re at all stages of knitting within our group. Sue has finished her shawl already! She has recorded her experience on her blog. Sue is an experienced spinner. She already had a local lamb’s fleece in her stash when she joined our knitalong. She’s been loving “using a fibre I know the history of”. She even got to see a photo of the lamb’s mum! She spun and knit the fibre raw, which encouraged a “definite connection to the grower, the sheep and the land”.
Suz's finished shawl from different angles

Suz’s finished shawl. Photo credit: Suz Arnott

Natasha has finished the body of her shawl. She started working the i-cord ties during our Knitalong meetup. She’s also been blogging her experiences. Natasha experimented with spinning three different fibres into three separate yarns. She then plyed these into one yarn. She’s been enjoying seeing how the colours have blended. Her fabric has a subtle, silvery lustre that’s lovely to look at. Natasha enjoyed knitting the Radiata. She’s swatched a handspun faux-boucle in preparation for another one!


Natasha's new swatch

Natasha’s new swatch (with in progress shawl underneath)

I’m two wedges into my own shawl. Unlike Sue and Natasha I’m not used to knitting local fibre at all. A portrait of the alpaca my fibre comes from is printed on the yarn label. I’ve enjoyed showing it to interested parties when they check out my knitting. There has been a little bit of dried grass twisted in the yarn. I was warned this might happen, but it doesn’t happen often enough to be a problem. It comes out easily if I’m careful to pull in line with the twist of the yarn. The yarn is loosely spun and largely uniform. I haven’t had problems with splitting. Very occassional slubby sections aren’t visible in the knitted fabric. Being suri alpaca, the yarn is slippery which has made stitches like Slip, Slip, Knit (SSK) a little more tricky. The outstanding aspect of my experience has been the light, soft feel to the fabric. Everyone comments on it, and my knitting has been much admired and handled!

My progress

My progress

Our second conversation

We were very lucky to have Emily Cunetto join us at our second Knitalong meeting. Emily lives in the USA so we appreciated her making time to video conference late in her evening. She told us about how she approached the design of the Radiata shawl. She had a lot of considerations because she didn’t know what yarns people would use. She also wanted to design for beginners and experienced knitters alike. An important aspect of the design for her was fabric drape, so she started there. She decided against lace and opted instead for a more structural design.

We talked about the challenges of making money from the arts and textiles. Emily has been producing knitwear and has a couple of knitting machines. She’s now moving into education and enjoys teaching people to knit. She showed us the jumper pattern she’s working on at the moment. Expect more patterns on her website in the future!

Emily Cunetto waving

Emily Cunetto called in late on her Friday night to talk to us. What a champion.

Our conversation went wide and we talked about the systemic challenges of connection to clothing. Emily feels we currently buy clothes on ‘credit’, in the sense that we don’t currently pay the full price of producing the items we wear. We don’t see the pollution and impact on people that clothing production makes. It’s possible the US experiences a more extreme version of this than Australia which was slower to the fast fashion trend, but both countries share similar challenges now. We’ve all noticed there is now an expectation we can buy what we want for less.

We felt that a connection and engagement to clothing production was needed. Our Knitalong is an opportunity for engaged makers, but the wider population needs something else. We recognised that not everyone will participate in clothing production. Specialists in different areas benefits society. We explored the local food movement to see if there were insights we could apply to clothing as well.

Posted in Fibreshed Melbourne | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

My paper straw hat gets a ‘medical’ check up

Crumpled hat

My paper straw hat gets a workout every summer. It’s comfortable and looks good, but doesn’t have staying power. Inevitably it ends up squished under someone’s bag while we’re traveling 😦 I’ve been experimenting with cleaning and reshaping my hat to restore its good looks. Here’s what I’ve found out.


Perhaps your hat is dirty because your husband dragged it through a bunch of bushes (not looking at anyone in particular, mind you!). No problem, some of the dirt will come out with cleaning. I tried brushing the hat first, to remove any big particles. I’ve seen advice to use a bristle brush for this, but I was worried that would scuff the paper straw. I have a brush for suede that’s gentler, so I used that instead. In my case, this brushing didn’t make much difference because the dirt was well rubbed in. But hey, it might help you!

What was effective, was applying a little dishwashing detergent and water with a rag. I’d recommend an old linen teatowel because that won’t spread lint all over your hat. Some dirt remained, but it was reduced enough for me to be happy to wear the hat in public again.


My second issue is that the hat gets knocked out of shape. Hats Unlimited have a helpful video showing how to reshape a hat with steam. I don’t have an industrial steamer, so I took their advice and set up a small saucepan on my stove with some water. I set the lid just off on the side so that only a little steam could get out at any time. I was trying to focus the steam, like the steamer does in Hats Unlimited’s video.

Reshaping hat with steam from saucepan on stove

I kept the hat about 15cm away from the steam for safety. It heats up fast, and you can feel it on your hands as you manipulate the hat. I steamed the inside and outside of the hat. When it is warm and soft you can reshape the hat with your fingers. I’ve never felt the hat get overwet, but if you do move it away from the steam and let the hat dry out before trying again.

I find this process helps reshape the hat. Over time, it sinks back towards its old crushed state, but never as bad as it was before. I’ve experimented with moulding the hat after steaming with some success. I use a rolled up towel pushed into the shape I want and pop the hat on top.

Hat with towel inside to reshape it

I find this a quick process that improves the look of my hat. Have you tried this before on your hats? What do you do when your hats get mistreated?

Edited to add: since my last camping trip, I stumbled across another potentially longer lasting way to restore my hat from squishyness!

  1. Get caught in torrential summer rain
  2. Reshape hat on towel mould (as pictured above) and hope for the best
  3. Leave in hot Australian afternoon sun to dry out

This methods seems to be working so far, albeit perhaps because our sun dries my hat really quickly..!

Edited to Save

Posted in Repairs | Tagged | 4 Comments

Fibreshed knitalong: swatching

For those new to knitting, a swatch is a mini experiment you run before starting a project. You make a hypothesis (this is going to have ‘x’ measurements, and result in ‘y’ kind of fabric), knit up the swatch and then review your results. If your hypothesis is correct, you proceed to knit up your project. If you don’t like the results, the swatch gives you clues on  to try next. Iteration for the win! Ok, perhaps I’ve been reading too many design thinking blogs recently 😉

Swatches are like eating your greens: you don’t necessarily want to do it (you want to rush ahead and just make the project already!) but they’re really good for you. Swatches help you measure the gauge, a basic indicator on what dimensions your garment will take. This is less important for scarves, very important for fitted items, like sweaters. A swatch also tests whether the fabric will be right for the garment, before you go to the effort of knitting the entire thing.

With that in mind, here’s the story of my swatches for the Fibreshed knitalong project.

The Radiata pattern is designed to work with a range of different weight yarns. It gives recommended gauges for each yarn weight, but also suggests larger needles for a more open fabric if you have fine yarn.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted, but I do know my 5 ply is spun fine so I started with 3.5mm needles.

My alpaca yarn, swatching garter stitch on 3.5mm needles

Swatch in 3.5mm needles

I quite liked that, but to have something to compare against I also knit some up with 5mm needles. This gives that more open look that the designer was talking about, but I don’t like it as much. I want to wear this shawl out at night and have it look elegant. The open rows that 5mm needles look like day wear to me. I put the question out to the hive mind for advice and was reminded that the shawl is mostly in stocking stitch. I’d misread the pattern and thought that the garter stitch it starts with for edging was the entire pattern. Inexperience strikes again! Just as well others picked that up for me…

Second stage of swatch; garter on 5mm needles

Trialling 5mm needles

I continued the swatch, knitting stockinette now in 5mm then 3.5mm. Even before I washed and blocked the swatch, I was confident that 3.5mm was my preferred option.

Finished first swatch. Messy cast on, tight cast off.

Finished first swatch. Messy cast on, tight cast off.

I didn’t like the messiness of my cast on, and of course I cast off way too tight. I decided to do a new ‘proper’ swatch and experiment with different techniques. I used a cable cast on, which I’m really happy with. Because it’s elastic, I used a stretchy technique to cast off. It’s a nice technique, although now this edge is wider and more stretchy than my cast on edge.

Knitted second swatch

Finished second swatch. Cable cast on, stretchy cast off.

I worried that the unequal stretchiness of my two edges might be an issue in the finished garment, so I turned back to my hive mind on social media. I was pointed to a technical knitting article that helps you match complimentary cast off techniques with your chosen cast on. Knowing this, I’ll continue to use a cable cast on and stick with my usual stitch over stitch cast off. To counter the tight binding, I’ll use a bigger needle next time.

On to the ‘real’ knitting!


Posted in Fibreshed Melbourne | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Rocks, hard places and taking a leap

Man sitting on a rock ledge looking out

All years are big, but 2016 seems to have made a bigger impact on most than usual. I’ve spoken to many tired people recently who declare 2016 to be a ‘bad year’. It’s felt like a sad, hard year for many. Terrorist attacks and war continue to pull people’s lives apart. It’s feeding the largest refugee crisis ever. In Australia we grappled with refugee policy and the treatment of minors in custody. Several people I know are undergoing treatment for cancer.

Hope seems thin on the ground, but there are good things happening quietly in the background. Global development efforts continue to reduce world poverty. A new drug that can make the most common form of adult leukaemia melt away got approved for use in the US. There’s also this list of great things that happened in 2016 to help boost your spirits.

For me, 2016 was a year full of great things. Too full, hence my absence in the later part of this year! We visited Peppermint Ridge for the first time. I got to travel to Queensland to celebrate my great aunt’s 100th birthday (more on that later). My work on the board of Creative Women’s Circle saw events hosted in multiple states for the first time. Fibreshed is continuing, especially now that the Knitalong is in full swing.

Most momentous for me is that I’ve decided to change career. It’s something that’s been a long time coming. Making the decision to leave my job is one of the scariest decisions I’ve made. I’m so glad now that I did. I’m moving into a new discipline called Service Design. It tackles the problems I’ve been fascinated by throughout my career. I’ll be working for a short time in Sydney in early 2017. I’m looking forward to sharing my adventures with you 🙂

Edited to add: I’m no longer going to be working in Sydney like I expected, but I’m sure I’ll still have lots of adventures to share with you…


Posted in Thoughts | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fibreshed knitalong: the beginning

It’s in motion! Participants have signed up, fibre is being spun or yarn has been bought. The Melbourne Fibreshed knitalong has begun. We’ve had our first meet up. We introduced each other to the fibres we’re using and got to talk to Jean Daddo at Pitchingga Ridge alpacas.

Introducing the fibres we’re using

Natasha is drawing fibres from across the state. She has alpaca and corriedale from the Goldfields, Western district and Mornington Peninsula. She’s spinning each fibre in an individual yarn and then plying them together. Fibre tones highlight in unexpected ways when you do this. We compared it to the way genes are inherited.

Corriedale wool from raw fleece to carded.

Corriedale wool from raw fleece to carded fibre

Other knitters are drawing from Yarra Valley angora rabbit, Spa country Finn wool, Murray wool and Sunraysia Merino. That’s a pretty comprehensive coverage of the state!

Cascade. Photo credit: Jean Daddo

Cascade. Photo credit: Jean Daddo

I’m using suri alpaca yarn. It comes from an alpaca called ‘Cascade’, who lives at Pitchingga Ridge. She’s a beautiful, calm alpaca with very fine fibre. She’s just birthed her first cria, Octavia. Her yarn was spun at Fibre Naturally. I love the rosy cream colour of the yarn, but Jean tells me it will lighten as I wash it.

Pitchingga Ridge is at Red Hill, which is known for its fine, red soils. Yarn has been processed, but some of the fine red dust remains. The iron pigment is subtly colouring my yarn. I love this idea and am a bit sad it will diminish!

Huacaya alpacas at Pitchingga Ridge

Huacaya alpacas at Pitchingga Ridge

Red Hill is on the Mornington Peninsula, 1.5 hours drive from Melbourne. It is the traditional land of the Burrinyung-bulluk clan, members of the Boonurong clan. On the West the land slopes to relaxed swimming beaches on Port Phillip Bay and views of Melbourne city. Travel to the east and you get to rockier windswept beaches edging Western Port Bay.

Red Hill itself is full of rolling, green hills, farmland and bush. It’s known for its vineyards, orchards and berry farms. There’s a cheese maker and a brewery. Mushroom foragers, mountain bikers and horse riders travel the red dirt pathways. A nearby attraction is Arthur’s Seat.

There’s a mix of permanent residents and holiday homes. I used to come every major holiday in my teenage years, because my grandparents had a property here. My aunt and uncle now run a vineyard nearby.

Our first conversation

I invited Jean Daddo at Pitchingga Ridge to call in to our knitalong meetup. She gave us a farmer’s perspective. Her expertise was a great addition to our conversation and lead us down different paths.

We talked about the different effects hand spinning and milling has on yarn appearance. Jean has handspun and had her alpaca fibre milled. She reflected on how the same fibre can look so different depending on how it was spun.

We learnt something of alpaca genetics and colour predictability. Pitchingga Ridge specialise in black fibres. Jean explained that Australian alpaca genetics only goes back a few decades. Peruvian imports come with no genetic history. This means alpaca breeding for colour is like working in the dark. Colours are difficult to breed for with accuracy, particularly grey.

Then there was the story of a 13 year old boy on the Mornington peninsula who keeps his own alpacas. He’s learning to spin their fibre and has someone lined up to knit him a beanie with it. He has plans to make a business of it. He is learning so much: the economics of animal husbandry, the physics of spinning and the business of selling. What a great education!

Natasha carding her corriedale fibre

Natasha carding her corriedale fibre





Posted in Fibreshed Melbourne | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wardrobe audit 2016

I love my capsule wardrobe, but does this restrict the variety of outfits I can put together? I decided to test the question by challenging myself to wear a different outfit every day for 100 days.

I recorded the challenge on Instagram under the hashtag #circularwardrobe. My rules were that every day had to use a different combination of objects. I allowed jewellery and accessories to be part of that combination. Even so, I was amazed at how far I could push this challenge.

It turns out I can definitely make 100 outfits with my wardrobe. I suspect that means I still have more clothes than I need! The challenge pushed me to come up with new combinations I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. Recording each day has given me a record of outfit ideas for when I’m feeling uninspired.

Speaking of photos, I wasn’t a fan of getting someone to photograph me everyday. I was ok asking people, but thinking of an interesting pose and location got tiresome quickly! I started off asking strangers because it was interesting to see what they came up with. Expediency meant I often relied on my trusty Instagram husband though. Poor guy! The best solution to my boredom was to feature whatever was happening that day in the photograph.

I felt like I was wearing my clothes a lot. Yet when I looked back on it, I realised it wasn’t as much as I thought. The #30wears challenge encourages people to buy clothes they’d want to wear at least 30 times. My most popular garment were my blue casual trousers. I only wore them 13 times over the 100 days. At that rate, it’d take me around 9 months to reach 30 wears. For some of my less frequently worn clothes, the required wearing period blows out to 10 years!

Its useful to remember there’s a bias in these numbers. Some of the ‘infrequent’ clothes are winter clothes that I don’t need much in warm weather. The numbers helped show me the clothes that were excess to my needs, less flexible or just not loved. I’ve gotten them out of my wardrobe and passed them on 🙂

Graph mapping frequency of wears during the challenge against years to reach 30 wears

So what does my wardrobe look like this year? It’s down to 49 pieces from 61 last year. A lot of that culling came from what I learnt during my 100 days challenge. I’ve also gotten better at airing my clothes between wears. This means I don’t need to wash as often, and reduces how many items I ‘need’. Check out each image caption for details of what I’ve included.

Are the drawers much different? A little. I’ve probably only reduced about 10 items here. Things like socks and jocks will stay with me till they wear out. I have a life-time’s supply of pantyhose from thrift stores so no more buying needed there! I’d like to think of something to do with my old baby blanket (bottom right corner of the bottom right image). It’s nostalgic, but it’s just sitting there without a purpose and what’s the point of that?

This year I got up the energy to include my shoes, bags and jewellery. I’ve decluttered my jewellery and bags down to what I use often, but shoes are tough! Do I really need the dancing heels? No one wants old battered shoes. I’m holding on to the white flats, white sneakers and runners even though I don’t need them.

It occurs to me I should include my hats! Next time 🙂

I’m such a procrastinator, I’ve got pretty much the same holes as last year. I’d still love a winter dress. I’d like some work-standard knit tops for summer and winter. I’ll keep an eye out for a basic coat that fits me better. I keep on top of my weight to avoid getting new trousers 😉

Over to you now! What have you learnt by looking over my wardrobe? How has your collection changed over the year?

Posted in Clothes | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Fibreshed Knitalong

All this Fibreshed research is well and good, but reading and learning isn’t enough. We want to do something with this information, don’t we? I’ve been thinking about how to encourage more people to interact with Fibreshed and start playing with the resources in their (mostly metaphorical) backyard. I have big ideas on what this could look like, but I’m feeling the limitations of my available time and ability to make that vision occur. What small thing could I do to set the ball rolling towards more participation and community?

Solution: a Knitalong

Fibershed California just launched a global Knitalong project. The idea is that everyone will knit the same pattern, but with a yarn local to them. We’ll be drawn together by working on a shared project, but have awesomely varied products to show at the end of it!

I’m organising this on the fly and by myself, so I won’t be keeping us to Fibreshed California’s Dec 17 end date. I’m also mindful that the busyness of Christmas is around the corner, let alone the heat of summer! The Melbourne Fibreshed will complete in 2017, to allow down-under knitters time to sign up to the project, gather socially and complete their garments.

Fibreshed Knitalong

The pattern

Emily Cunetto has released a shawl pattern especially for this Knitalong: Radiata is designed to highlight the qualities of local fibres. It can be made in a range of yarns from featherweight through to bulky. Its an easy pattern, so even a novice knitter like myself can participate. You can purchase the pattern on Ravelry or from Emily’s website.

The yarn

I’ve called up all the local yarn providers I know and made a spreadsheet of what they have available for this project. Check out the list to see what you would like to work with. The product descriptions are basic, so I encourage you to call the providers to talk it over in more detail.

This spreadsheet is open for anyone to edit; you’re welcome to add additional providers. Remember all listed products must be produced with local fibres, local labour and local dyes. Local in this case means within 500km of Melbourne.

My knitalong yarn is 5 ply cream suri alpaca. Grown on the Mornington Peninsula by Pitchingga Ridge, milled in Macclesfield by Fibre Naturally.

My knitalong yarn just arrived in the mail! It’s 5 ply cream suri alpaca. Grown on the Mornington Peninsula by Pitchingga Ridge, milled in Macclesfield by Fibre Naturally.

The community

We’ve got a band of knitters participating already. Some are novice knitters like myself, others have spun their own yarn! They’re located across Melbourne and regional centres. I’ll be introducing the producers on the Fibreshed Melbourne Facebook group, as well as posting updates as our shawls progress.

To help us feel connected, I have organised several meetups. We’ll meet physically where possible, and also connect digitally over video conference. I’ll be inviting our local fibre farmers and yarn producers to join those calls. Just think: a knitalong where you get to talk directly to the people who made your yarn, and they get to see what you’ve made with it!

Follow along

To join in, sign up. Filling out the online form helps me to make the project work the best it can for you, from organising community meetups in your area/online to keeping you up to date with all the project details.

Regardless of whether you’re participating this year, follow the hashtag #fibershedKAL on Instagram to see what knitters around the world are making from their Fibreshed.


Posted in Fibreshed Melbourne | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lake Boga

I live in a city and cycle everywhere, so I’m not the world’s best driver. Visiting a farm in Winlaton required more driving in one day than I was comfortable with, so I decided to stay the night in neighbouring Lake Boga. Boy am I glad I did! My husband joined me at the last minute for a fun mini-cation in a part of Victoria we never imagined we’d visit.

Driving from Melbourne, Kerang presented the perfect lunch stop opportunity. Atkinson Park provided a large lake and shaded tables for our picnic lunch. The nearby playground entertained us with its flying fox and the library’s gallery space offered an exhibition of contemporary weaving.

After our farm visit, we drove over to Lake Boga caravan park, our rest stop for the night. The owner was relaxed and friendly, and the lush grass of the camping area inviting. We strolled over to the bottle shop for a bottle of wine, and sat by Lake Boga. We relaxed with books and wine glasses in hand all afternoon, bliss!

I’d remembered to bring my binoculars and checked out the pelicans on the lake in detail. It’s the first time I’ve seen a flock feeding together. They glided over the water in the same direction. In sync, they bowed their heads into the water and partially raised their wings. Having trailed their beaks for a short while, they lifted their heads again and continued to glide on. It was an amazing piece of choreography.

Lake Boga at sunset

Lake Boga at sunset, part of the Victorian Mid-Murray Storages.

We had dinner at the pub, then walked along the lake to get to the Lake Boga Observatory. Several visitors were peering into telescopes by the time we arrived. It was a friendly, casual affair. The two guides showed us some of their favourite features, and took on board audience requests. Mars and Saturn were visible while we were there. We checked out the jewel box and got introduced to Antares. Later on, we headed inside for a presentation which zoomed in on galaxies. It gave me a better appreciation of the depth of the universe. Pretty cool stuff.

We set our alarms for 4am as we crawled into the tent for bed that night. Obedient to the signal, we got up and lay on the shores of Lake Boga in our sleeping bags to watch a meteor shower overhead in skies much clearer than you ever get in Melbourne.

The biggest tourist draw card at Lake Boga is the Flying Boat museum. Lake Boga was the site of a secret repair facility in World War II. Flying boats served in the Indian and Pacific oceans and Asia. They were large and slow, but could travel incredible distances. How else would you get a plane from Singapore back to Lake Boga with only one refueling stop?!

The highlight of the museum is an authentic Catalina Flying Boat, set up as it would have been in WWII. Around it are displays of memorabilia. One story recorded a time when the bottom of a Catalina was bombed, injuring the pilots. With the wind whistling around them, one of the pilots made a disparaging comment about “this Japanese air-con”! They managed the long haul back from Asia to Lake Boga. But flying boats usually land on water, and this Catalina had a massive hole in its belly. The pilots angled the vessel so that the tail hit the water first and the nose came down just as they reached the lake shore. Incredible stuff.

The memorabilia also told human stories of the repair base. It must have had a massive impact on this quiet agricultural community. There were mens and womens quarters, and regular dances for entertainment.

Driving home, we noticed the sign for the Reedy Lakes wetlands and turned off to check them out. The Kerang lakes are the traditional lands of the Wadiwadi, Wembawemba and Barababaraba. There were two walks from the car park; the one around the lake was more intact than the bushland one. It was a beautiful short walk between sun drenched River Red Gums. The perfect end to a lovely holiday.

*This article was edited because I found extra photos and information from the trip, particularly about our visit to the Reedy Lakes wetlands.

Posted in Further afield | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fibreshed fibre: Cotton

“Doesn’t cotton use a lot of water?”

When I told friends I was visiting a local cotton farm, I was consistently asked this question. Environmental messaging about cotton has pervaded the community consciousness. I was curious to find out how concerned I should be about this information. This is my first attempt at the topic. As always, it is limited by what access to data sources I have, and my skill set in understanding it.

Cotton history

The original source of cotton could have been East Africa and the Americas. What does seem certain is we’ve been using cotton for a long time. 5000+ year old cotton fabric has been found in Egypt, the Indus Valley (modern day Pakistan) and Mexico. Knowledge of cotton spread along with some of the key stories from our history books. Alexander the Great’s troops switched from woollen tunics to cotton when they invaded India. Muslims in Spain introduced cotton to Europe in the 8th century. Cotton became a valued import from India until the 18th century. Then the industrial revolution in the UK shifted production to Europe. There were poor work conditions in British mills and slavery in North American fields.

Cotton is a relative of the hibiscus plant. Most cotton grown today are Americas varietals, particularly Gossypium hirsutum; upland cotton. Pima and Egyptian cotton fibres come from a South American variety, Gossypium barbadense. It has fine, soft, long-staple fibers but is harder to grow.

Native Australian 'cotton'

Native Australian ‘cotton’ Kapok/Goonjan/Wanggu (Cochlospermum fraseri) in the Northern Territory. The fruits split to release numerous seeds on silky parachutes of a cotton-like fibre.

Cotton in Australia

In Australia, cotton came out with the first fleet. There are some native ‘cottons’, but they are not grown commercially. It puttered along as a minor crop in Queensland from the 1850s. This was unirrigated, marginal yield and poor quality. There are hints of an ugly story here too. Over 60,000 South Pacific Islanders were brought to develop the cotton and sugarcane crops. Was blackbirding involved?

The modern, irrigated crop we know was an innovation of the 1960s. Cotton was the first genetically modified (GM) crop to be grown in Australia in 1996. Today 98% of the Australian cotton crop is GM. CSIRO partners with Monsanto to breed cotton varieties suited to different regions in Australia. One of those varieties is Bollguard II. It contains two genes from the soil bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Those genes produce proteins in the cotton leaves, killing caterpillars of cotton’s biggest pest. Because of this, Australian cotton has the highest yields in the world. I have been unable to locate any organic cotton growers in Australia. It would appear that growing organic in Australia is commercially unfeasible.

The cotton growing season in Australia falls between September and April. Victoria’s season is shorter and finishes in late April or early May. The plant grows to about 1 metre tall. Lovely cream and crimson pink flowers give way to bolls. The bolls split to reveal cotton fibre inside.

Cotton bolls at different stages of opening

Cotton bolls at different stages of opening

During the growing season, fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides are applied to the crop. Once the cotton bolls open, defoliant is used before harvesting. This list breaks down the actions at each stage in more detail. This video shows the different stages (and machinery used) for cotton growing. It focuses on New South Wales, so some of the techniques are different to Victoria. Australian farms average 10 bales of cotton per hectare planted. Each bale contains 2,500kg of cotton lint, seed and vegetable matter.

Cotton’s environmental impact

Yes. Cotton uses a lot of water. About 7 megalitres per hectare; which grows at least 10 bales of cotton in Australia. A farmer told me that 40% of a bale is lint (cotton fibre), so that gives us about 10,000kg of cotton per hectare. Australia’s crop is considered the most water efficient in the world. So if water efficiency is important to you, Australian cotton is worth considering.

But should we be growing cotton in the first place? Cotton is a large water user when compared to other clothing fibres. So cotton as a clothing fibre doesn’t rate well for water concious consumers. But when compared to other crops grown where cotton is farmed? The story changes. Cotton uses less water than lucerne and tomatoes: popular crops in Victoria’s irrigated areas. Cotton is also a lucrative crop. From a farming perspective then, cotton makes the most out of available water allocations.

Speaking of irrigation, I wondered about the environmental impact of having an irrigation system. I spoke to Juliet Le Feuvre from Environment Victoria. I asked her if it’s possible to irrigate in an environmentally responsible way. She thinks it is, although we’re struggling to balance the competing needs well. She pointed me to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan for information on our current approach.

Lake Boga at sunset

Lake Boga at sunset, part of the Victorian Mid-Murray Storages.

Chemicals on cotton involve insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and defoliants. I’ll refer to these generally as pesticides. Insecticides are applied to stop insects destroying crop plants. Australia’s use of GM cotton varieties has reduced insecticide use by 85%. In 2010-11, that meant 0.54 kg of insecticide active constituent per hectare. Fungicides kill or prevent the growth of fungi and their spores. The only fungicides registered for use on cotton in Australia are for seed treatments.

Herbicides kill unwanted plants. Of all the herbicides used on cotton, more than 80% is glyphosate (Roundup). In 2013, herbicide useage was just under 3kg of active ingredient per hectare. Seven glyphosate resistant weed species occur widely in cotton farming systems. It’s interesting to note that irrigated systems provide higher weed control than dryland systems. Defoliants cause plant leaves to die back and drop off. This reduces the leaf and vegetable matter in the cotton when harvested. Defoliants could use chemicals that also have insecticide or herbicide qualities. Defoliation makes processing easier and maintains the quality of the fibre.

There are several concerns about chemicals:

  • negative effects on beneficial insects
  • weed resistance to herbicides
  • chemical run off and spray drift (when pesticides move away from their intended target).

Beneficial insects are being better supported by Integrated Pest Management Systems. This uses a broad range of strategies to control problem pests including targeted insecticides. Integrated Weed Management is helping control weed resistance. The cotton industry has significantly reduced the impact of pesticides on the environment. Tools like MyBMP will help the industry to keep doing so. But pesticides do continue to have an impact on waterways and vegetation.

Kilter Rural's cotton field

Defoliated cotton ready for harvest

Cotton on

Cotton is hard wearing and durable, but soft on the skin and hypoallergenic. It’s spun as a combed or mercerised yarn. Combed cotton is brushed, matte and low-twist. Mercerised cotton is treated with sodium hydroxide for a shiny finish and high twist. The fibre provides little insulation, high breathability and absorbs water. This is why its such a comfortable fabric in warm weather.

Most cotton is white; it can have shades of yellow depending on the variety grown. There are also coloured varieties of cotton in red, green and brown! Cotton fibres vary in length from 1 to 6.5 cm, with a diameter of 11-22 microns. Cotton fabric has good drape and high pilling resistance. The smoothness of the fibre defines stitches, good for showing off fancy stitch work. Mercerised cotton has superb colour retention.

Cotton is inexpensive, and can be washed and dried on regular machine cycles. It can help to lie the garment flat to dry, to avoid stretching it out of shape.

Cotton conundrums

Some high twist cottons, particularly mercerised ones, can knit on an angle. Cotton yarn is prone to splitting during knitting. Cotton’s good stitch definition shows up all your mistakes. That’s a concern for inexperienced knitters like myself!

Cotton fabric is inelastic, so it is prone to stretching and sagging. Blended yarns improve this tendency. Cottons dyed in dark colours tend to bleed. Adding vinegar to washes reduces colour running. The colours tend to fade in brushed cottons, they can also be prone to pilling. Be careful around flames, because cotton is highly flammable.

There is no easily sourced organic cotton available in Australia.

Where to see cotton locally

Kilter Rural – Lake Boga, Mallee region


Posted in Fibreshed Melbourne | Tagged , , , , , , | 11 Comments


Two lambs sleepingSo it turns out that I’ve taken too much on again. I’ve been cutting back and resting, but this month is still really busy and I haven’t found my blogging mojo again yet. I’m chipping away at post about cotton and I’ll share that once its done. In the meantime, I’m sorry to have left you hanging, and I hope you’ll be patient with me as I get back up to speed.

Thank you so much for reading.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments