Wars boost production
The South African War boosted woollen mill production. During the two world wars woollen mills worked at full capacity and could not get enough skilled workers. Shift work was introduced at some mills during the First World War, including at Lane Walker Rudkin’s Ashburton mill, where orders for khaki-coloured fabric for army uniforms kept the machines running 24 hours a day and stretched their capacity to the limit.
During the Second World War the Ashburton mill installed automatic looms and ran three shifts a day. It made more than 724 kilometres of fabric for army clothing – using 427 tonnes of wool – as well as army blankets (grey with a red stripe down the middle), yarn for jerseys, socks and Shetland-blend underclothes. However, profits were cut back by having to pay overtime rates; in one year this came to 80,000 hours among the 300 employees because, in spite of people being ‘manpowered’ into mills, staff was hard to get.
Bessie Turnbull (1885–1988) started at Mosgiel Woollen Mill in 1900, making socks in the hosiery department. She worked five and a half days a week, from 7.45 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. Monday to Friday, and Saturday mornings. She had an hour for lunch but no tea breaks. At first she was paid by what she produced, not by the hour. ‘Fifty-seven years I worked in the factory. I liked my work and did my best,’ she said, aged 101. ‘I’m not saying I had an easy life … I’m not sorry to say I enjoyed it and I’ve had a lot of pleasure with my workmates.‘1
From the late 1930s woollen mills were protected by import restrictions and high tariffs on textiles, which meant imported fabric was much more expensive than locally made. One downside of the licensing system was that it stopped diversification, because those who held an import licence for a particular item could oppose local mills wanting to make that product in New Zealand. Textile importers and other mills could oppose the importation of new machinery for a mill to make a new item.
Both the wool-processing industry and the clothing-manufacturing industry it supplied were very big. In 1939 Ross and Glendining – which employed nearly 2,500 people in its mills, clothing factories and warehouses – was the largest company in New Zealand. It was only one of about a dozen firms operating woollen mills.
Woollen mills merge
In 1960 there were 18 mills in New Zealand, operated by 16 companies. In 1968 they produced 10,000 tonnes of carpet, weaving, machine- and hand-knitting yarn, 3 million square metres of woven fabric, 223,000 pairs of blankets and 67,000 rugs. However, the new light-weight easy-care synthetic fabrics that had become available in the 1950s were providing competition for woven woollen fabrics.
Many woollen mills merged in the 1960s. The Timaru and Ōamaru mills formed Alliance Textiles, which then took over the Bruce Woollen Manufacturing Company. The Kaiapoi and Petone mills merged, UEB took over Ross and Glendining and the Napier Woollen Mills, and the Roslyn and Mosgiel mills merged.
Despite these mergers, in 1969 a committee set up by the Department of Industries and Commerce concluded that there were still too many mills making small amounts (‘short runs’) of the same items – mainly blankets, and serge and flannel fabrics.
New mills open, old mills close
New small textile factories started up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, making knitwear from imported synthetic yarns. The Industries Development Commission’s Textile Industries Plan, implemented from 1980, let more imported yarn into New Zealand.
In 1980 the Mosgiel Woollen Mill was put into receivership after almost 110 years of operation. By 1982 there were only eight mills, controlled by five companies. When import licensing for textiles ended in 1992, mills faced more competition from imported textiles on which the high tariffs were being gradually lowered. By 2000 all of the major mills had closed.
Old looms, new fibre
Stansborough Fibres uses six 19th-century wool looms – believed to be the only ones of their kind still being used commercially in the world – to make fabrics used in films including The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. Looking for ways to diversify from meat and wool production, Wairarapa sheep farmers Cheryl and Barry Eldridge began breeding Swedish Gotland Pelt sheep, and bred their own Stansford Greys to produce a wool fibre that is soft and shiny.
In the early 2000s textile producers continued to make carpet yarn and spin fine Merino wool for clothing fabric. In 2009 New Zealand’s largest mills were South Canterbury Textiles in Timaru, which mainly wove wool; Inter-weave in Auckland, which produced furnishing fabrics; and Masterweave in Masterton, which concentrated on alpaca and mohair rugs.
Firms that spun yarn included WoolYarns of Lower Hutt, which used possum fur, angora and silk as well as wool; Design Spun in Napier, which developed fine worsted spinning; and Quality Yarns, housed in the old mill buildings in Milton. The largest textile firms knitting fine Merino and other fabrics were Levana Textiles of Levin and Designer Textiles in Auckland.