The term “Australia rode on the sheep’s back” refers to the significant role that the wool industry played in the economic development of Australia, particularly during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It signifies the importance of the sheep and wool industry as the backbone of Australia’s prosperity and economic growth during that period. The story of sheep goes all the way back to the first fleet, as first fat-tailed sheep brought into Australia in 1788 with the First Fleet.

Credit: State Library New South Wales
The origin of the phrase  “Australia rode on the sheep’s back” can be traced back to the mid-1800s when Australia’s economy heavily relied on the production and export of wool. Australia’s climate and vast grazing lands were well-suited for sheep farming, and the industry quickly expanded.
Wool became Australia’s primary export commodity, and the revenue generated from wool exports played a crucial role in the country’s economic development. It provided the funds necessary for infrastructure projects, such as railways and ports, and supported the growth of cities and towns.
“Australia riding on the sheep’s back,” encapsulates the pivotal role that wool exports played in shaping the nation’s economy and setting the stage for the emergence of a thriving garment industry.

Historical Context

Australia’s colonial history, marked by British settlement in the late 18th century, laid the foundation for the wool industry. The introduction of merino sheep, bred for their fine wool, revolutionised the Australian agricultural landscape.
The harsh Australian climate and the vast expanses of land were ideally suited for sheep farming, leading to the rapid expansion of the industry. The wool industry quickly became the economic backbone of Australia, providing a reliable income stream and fostering the growth of related sectors.

The Rise of the Wool Industry

The early 19th century witnessed a significant increase in the number of sheep in Australia. This expansion was fuelled by several factors, including favourable climatic conditions, the availability of vast grazing land, and advancements in breeding techniques.

Australian two dollar note from 1966, featuring John Macarthur, the “Father of The Australian Wool Industry” | Image Courtesy of: Camden History Notes
John Macarthur, often referred to as the “Father of the Australian Wool Industry”, played a pivotal role in introducing merino sheep and improving wool quality through selective breeding.
The development of transportation infrastructure, such as railways and ports, further facilitated the growth of the wool industry. This allowed for efficient transportation of wool from remote rural areas to urban centres, both within Australia and for international export. Additionally, the establishment of wool auctions provided a platform for buyers and sellers to negotiate prices, ensuring fair trade practices and enhancing market transparency.

Impact on International Wool Exports

Image Courtesy of: National Museum Australia
Australia’s abundant wool supply soon captured the attention of the international garment industry. The superior quality of Australian wool, particularly merino wool, made it highly sought after by textile manufacturers worldwide. The fine texture, strength, and natural insulation properties of Australian wool made it an ideal material for producing high-quality garments.
As the demand for Australian wool increased, so did its export volumes. Wool shipments were primarily destined for the textile manufacturing hubs in Europe, particularly Britain, where the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. The Australian wool industry played a crucial role in providing a reliable and sustainable source of raw material to support the growing textile industry, contributing significantly to the economic development of both Australia and the importing nations.

The export of wool provided Australia with valuable foreign exchange earnings, enabling the country to import machinery, technology, and other goods required for industrialisation.

This economic growth, driven by the wool industry, laid the foundation for the emergence of a domestic garment manufacturing sector in Australia.
The export of Australian wool not only provided economic stability but also facilitated the growth of the domestic garment industry. The availability of a reliable and abundant raw material encouraged the establishment of textile mills and garment manufacturing facilities within Australia. This, in turn, created employment opportunities, stimulated local economies, and fostered technological advancements in the garment production process.
Furthermore, the wool industry’s impact extended beyond economic factors. It shaped Australia’s identity and cultural heritage. The image of the rugged Australian sheep stations and the iconic Australian stockmen became synonymous with the country’s national character. The wool industry became ingrained in the nation’s psyche, serving as a symbol of resilience, hard work, and resourcefulness.

The Role of Australian Fine Wool in the Italian Garment Industry

Spin a yarn … the Zegna Baruffa factory in Borgosesia. Zegna has been using Australian wool since the 1920s | Image Courtesy of: The Sydney Morning Herald
The Australian garment industry’s connection to the international market extends beyond wool exports alone. In particular, Australian fine wool has played a significant role in the Italian garment industry, particularly in renowned Italian companies like Zegna. So some exploration of the relationship between Australian fine wool and the Italian garment industry, focusing on the influence of Australian wool in Italian mills and its contribution to the success of companies such as Zegna.
Australian Fine Wool in Italian Mills
Italian mills have long been recognised for their expertise in textile production and garment manufacturing. The use of premium raw materials is a critical factor in their ability to create high-quality fabrics. Australian fine wool, renowned for its exceptional quality, has been highly sought-after by Italian mills for decades.
Italian mills, including those associated with prestigious brands like Zegna, have long established strong partnerships with Australian wool producers. These collaborations ensure a consistent supply of high-quality wool, which forms the foundation of the luxurious fabrics produced in Italian mills. The unique characteristics of Australian fine wool, such as its softness, durability, and versatility, make it an ideal material for creating elegant and refined garments.
Italian companies like Zegna have been at the forefront of incorporating Australian fine wool into their fabric collections. Zegna, in particular, has a longstanding history of sourcing wool directly from Australia. The company’s commitment to quality and craftsmanship has made it a leading player in the luxury menswear market. Zegna’s use of Australian fine wool has contributed to its reputation for producing exquisite fabrics that exemplify both style and comfort.
The influence of Australian fine wool in Italian mills goes beyond the material itself. Australian wool producers have collaborated with Italian mills to develop innovative techniques and processes that enhance the performance and aesthetic appeal of the fabrics. These collaborations have led to advancements in fabric finishes, dyeing methods, and blending techniques, further elevating the quality and versatility of Australian fine wool.
Moreover, the partnership between Australian wool producers and Italian mills has fostered a mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and expertise. Australian wool producers have gained insights into the latest fashion trends and consumer preferences, enabling them to tailor their wool production to meet the evolving demands of the global market. On the other hand, Italian mills have benefited from the technical expertise of Australian wool producers, enhancing their garment manufacturing capabilities.

The Australian garment industry emerged as a natural progression from the wool industry. Initially, the focus was on producing woollen garments such as sweaters, blankets, and coats, capitalising on the unique properties of Australian wool.

The history of the Australian garment manufacturing industry is a complex and evolving story. The industry has faced various challenges and undergone significant changes throughout its history. Here is an overview of its major milestones:
Early Years (1788-1850s):
The garment manufacturing industry in Australia can be traced back to the early days of European settlement in the late 18th century. Initially, the colony relied heavily on imported clothing from Britain due to a lack of skilled garment workers and limited resources. However, as the population grew and local production became more feasible, small-scale garment manufacturing began to emerge.
Industrialization and Growth (1860s-1940s):
The period from the 1860s to the early 20th century witnessed the growth of the Australian garment manufacturing industry.
Wool classing in Australia circa 1900 | Image Courtesy of: Quality Wool
The industrial revolution brought mechanisation and mass production techniques, leading to the establishment of larger factories. The industry expanded rapidly, especially in cities like Melbourne and Sydney. Garment manufacturing became an important sector, employing a significant number of workers, including women.
World Wars and Protectionism (1914-1960s):
Both World War I and World War II had a significant impact on the Australian garment manufacturing industry. During these periods, import restrictions and the need for military uniforms created opportunities for local manufacturers. The war efforts stimulated domestic production and increased the industry’s importance to the national economy. After World War II, protectionist policies were implemented to support local industries, including garment manufacturing. Import tariffs were introduced to safeguard domestic manufacturers from foreign competition.

The early availability of skilled immigrant labour, combined with the country’s natural resources, gave Australia a competitive advantage in the global garment market.

The garment industry became an important sector within the Australian economy, building manufacturing capabilities, generating revenue, promoting trade, and contributing to national prosperity.
However, it is important to acknowledge that the Australian garment industry has evolved over time. Globalisation, the demise of local manufacturing, shifting consumer preferences, and changes in the international textile and garment trade have presented both opportunities and challenges.

Offshore Outsourcing and Decline (1970s-2000s)

From the 1970s onwards, the Australian garment manufacturing industry faced significant challenges. The industry struggled to compete with low-cost imports, particularly from Asian countries. Rising labor costs, changing consumer preferences, and advancements in global supply chains led many companies to outsource production to countries with cheaper labor, such as China, Bangladesh, and Vietnam. This trend resulted in the closure of numerous local factories and a decline in employment within the industry.
The industry has had to adapt to new market dynamics, including increased competition from low-cost manufacturing nations such China and changing consumer demands for sustainable and ethically produced garments.
In response to these challenges, the Australian garment industry has attempted to embrace  innovation, technology, and sustainable practices.
Australian designers and manufacturers have focused on creating niche markets, emphasising quality, craftsmanship, and unique design aesthetics. Additionally, there has been a growing emphasis on sustainable and eco-friendly production practices, including the use of organic fibres, recycling, and reducing waste.
But it would be fair to say that the domestic garment manufacturing industry is but a shadow of its former self.

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