Year of the Sheep

Year of the Sheep

A fine fit for Sydney

The 2015 Chinese New Year holds an extra special place in Sydney’s heart. Under the 12-year lunar calendar, the Year of the Sheep celebrates strength, fortitude and perseverance.

Such traits, personified by the shearer and swagman in our folklore, drove Australia’s rise from humble beginnings to prosperity in the European era. Sydney itself was shaped by the great advance "on the sheep’s back" as a thriving gateway to global textile markets.

It all began in the early days of the colony with the introduction of Spanish merino sheep. Farmers' success back then breeding stock with lighter, higher quality fleeces quickly attracted foreign buyers. Overseas orders became a major part of the colonial economy from the 1830s. Wool washing and scouring companies popped up along Waterloo Dam in the late 1840s, when fields in Alexandria and Botany resembled a sea of white as sprawling drying greens.

Men laying out wool on a drying green Drying green of the Lakeside Wool Scouring Works at Botany 1899. (The Sydney Mail, 4 March 1899)

While Port Jackson served as the colony's vital link to global markets throughout the 19th century, Sydney was emerging as the wool capital of the world. During the 1870s, more than 40 million sheep grazed the wide, open fields of NSW. In Circular Quay, drovers rubbed shoulders with wharfies, while merchants discussed with sea captains the details of ships laden with copious bales.  

To meet the demands of expanding mechanised textile industries in Europe and North America, the local flock more than doubled again to reach 106 million by 1892. By then, wool represented about 45% of total exports.

In Sydney a rail-wharf link had long been operating in Darling Harbour and, elsewhere, grand wool stores dotted the city. Edward Flood’s Blackwall Wool Store stood on the eastern arm of Sydney Cove. Thomas Mort’s – home to the first regular wool auctions in Sydney – was next to Customs House. And 20 multi-storey stores were built in Pyrmont between 1882 and World War II. 

Wharfies loading wool bales onto a ship Cargo hold in 'Magdalene Vinnen' with crew men positioning wool bales, March 1933. (Samuel J. Hood Studio Collection, Australian National Maritime Museum)

Australia was exporting about 90% of its wool before the Great War. Then the British Government bought the country’s entire national "clip" to clothe Allied soldiers in 1916.

Wool continued to dominate outgoing trade between the wars, rising to 62% of the value of total primary products as Japanese firms emerged as a major customer. Britain once again swallowed national production throughout World War II.

Japan surpassed Britain as Australia’s main wool buyer by the late 1950s, at the height of the Australian wool industry, and within 3 years bought twice as much.

The industry remained strong during the 1960s when the release of the Woolmark logo coincided with the soaring popularity of knitwear and the use of wools for all-seasons clothing right around the world.

At Sydney Opera House in 1988, Australia’s Bicentennial celebrations included a wool fashion collection of Australian and international designers, including Oscar de la Renta and Gianni Versace.

Australia remains the world’s largest supplier of wool for the clothing trade, exporting two-thirds of a $3 billion market, with almost 70 per cent of exports going to China.

Today much of the commercial history of the Australian wool industry is still visible in Sydney. Though no longer used for exports, the wharves of Darling Harbour and nearby former wool stores will be illuminated by the fireworks displays marking the City’s Chinese Year of the Sheep Festival. 

Main image: The huge wool arch erected for Federation in 1901 celebrated Australia as the ‘land of the golden fleece’. (SRC15339, City of Sydney Archives)


Mrs Matthews with her Merino ram being inspected by a judge. A judge opening the fleece of Mrs Matthews' merino ram, 1930s. (Samuel J. Hood Studio Collection, State Library of New South Wales)

Last updated: Thursday, 22 January 2015