Chances are if you open any linen cupboard in New Zealand you will find one. Perhaps it has a fringe or embroidered with blanket stitch. It could be brown, light blue and baby pink or another colour altogether. Generally though if it’s not tartan it will be grey marl or cream with blue print. There may be holes darned with miss-matched wool or simply left to fray.
I am referring to New Zealand’s vintage and well-loved wool blankets. You know what I am talking about with your ‘own’ family tartan and perhaps even recognising another family’s pattern from years spent at sleep overs at their homes. Every family seemed to have at least one or two stashed away in the cupboards, bought out at winter or if a family pet is particularly lucky, donated to their basket.
These unofficial family heirlooms are as kiwi as the pavlova or the buzzy bee. But just where do these blankets originate? Many woollen blankets have a silk patch on the corner showing where the woollen blanket was created providing a hint to a rich New Zealand history of wool mills.
The first wool mills were built in the late 1800’s in Mosgiel and Otago before more woollen mills appeared in Kaiapoi, Roslyn, Oamaru and Ashburton. In the North Island, wool mills opened in Onehunga, Napier, Whanganui, Wanganui and Petone. These mills produced blanket, fabrics and yarn. At peak production, there were 10 large scale woollen mills across New Zealand.
Supporting various industry development, one entrepreneur to make the most of wool mills was Bendix Hallenstein. Once mayor of Queenstown, Hallenstein had difficulty finding men’s clothing and entered the garment industry around the 1870’s. Using materials from Roslyn and Mosgiel mills, there were 34 Hallensteins stores across the country by 1900.
In terms of employment at the mills, The Employment of Females Act was established in 1873 meaning women worked an 8 hour day and Saturday mornings. An amendment the following year meant they could start at 8am (as opposed to 9am) and the ½ day on Saturday was removed in 1875. This however was not without controversy as a Royal commission in 1878 found many women were sent home with work at night. Various amendments were passed over the years resulting in the almost universal 44 hour work week by the early 1920’s.
War boosted woollen production with shift work being introduced by the 1920’s and Lane Walker Rudkin’s Ashburton mill making the khaki fabric for New Zealand’s army uniforms. By World War 2, Ashburton had installed automatic looms streamlining production.
By 1968 around 4500 people were employed in wool mills with many young women working in these mills and at the time, paid less than men. The mill workers were paid per piece as opposed to by the hour to ensure work was as efficient as possible.
With the deregulation of the New Zealand economy comes many imported products and along with synthetic products and fast fashion. Today, many people are concerned about micro-fibres from synthetic fibres that are ending up in the ocean and affecting our sea life.
With these quick turnaround products, the result is many people not knowing to knit today. The mills supplied wool where and patterns allowing knitters to make their own creations. Knitting patterns were available for men, women, babies and children’s wear with many children using left over wool to create a pom-pom with a round piece of cardboard.
Luckily, with the quality and longevity of the wool you can often find quality second hand blankets on popular trading websites today. Many creative folk with a sewing-machine are turning these in to dog beds, winter coats and dresses, soft toys and cushions but in our mind, you still can’t go past an original blanket whipped out from the back of a wooden and floral wallpaper lined wardrobe at the first cold snap of the season.
Did you work at one of these mills or know a bit more about a particular mill? Do you have a woollen blanket? Do you know which mill it came from? Did you use a pattern for clothing for your family? We’d love to hear if you know a bit about your woollen history.