Passion for coloured wool started long career

A retired teacher who's a dab hand at knitting and spinning runs five flocks of purebred coloured sheep so he can provide handcraft buyers virtually every wool option they need, writes Tim Cronshaw.

If Stuart Albrey’s life was a book divided into chapters then a good number of them would be committed to farming and coloured sheep.

Early chapters would be devoted to his time in Wellington with wife and fellow teacher Sue, settling into a home, then uprooting for the small South Canterbury town of Waimate. Raising their son Brendan and daughter Laura and the busy hum of family life would be woven into the storyline.

Pages would flick past the decades teaching students in the district. In his case, physical education and health took centre stage for a long time. Space would be found for coaching gymnastics — he remains involved in its administration to this day — and other sports, among many outside interests.

Then the thread of the book’s narrative would take a twist as the couple fall into farming by a serpentine route.

Following chapters would angle into many hours spent outside of the classroom developing their purebred flocks and honing skills through the farming to fibre to finished product cycle.

This began in the mid-1980s when they moved from the capital city for Mr Albrey to take up a new head of PE role at Waimate High School with Mrs Albrey teaching at local primary schools.

After selling their Wellington home they found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to buy a house in Princes St with an 1ha parcel of land in a lower-priced market.

"So it gave us a chance to have as nice a house as we had in Wellington, on flat land. Then the question was what do we do with 2.5 acres? One of the families who I taught the kids at school and helped coach them in athletics had a farm up the road. Amongst their big white commercial flock they had a small flock of coloureds. They asked me if I wanted to try these wee coloureds. So we got six of these black Coopworths in 1987. Then of course they grew wool and I thought, hmmm, I might want to learn to spin because I knew how to knit."

Raised in Palmerston North, the retired teacher spent a lot of time with a grandmother skilled in the art of handcrafts.

"She taught us when I was about 8 or 9-years-old to knit with commercial yarns. So I became quite a good knitter which sort of flew against the traditional ideas of what young guys should be doing. Well, funny story there — when one or two of the girls got wind of this they challenged me ... So I actually won the odd bottle of beer at school, not that the principal needed to know."

Through trial and error, he learned to spin wool, eschewing offers of assistance as he wanted to understand each facet of this skill set inside-out.

Then Geraldine’s Anderson family — arguably the top coloured breeders then in the country — took them under their wing and gave them good advice.

"Things grew and we got a few more sheep so we leased a little block down the street and leased a little block around the street and another by the hospital. So I spent all my day outside of the classroom driving up and down the roads doing this and going here, there and everywhere. We got to the point we needed to consolidate it."

Boxes of neatly labelled wool are lined up for sale in a storage area at South Canterbury...
Boxes of neatly labelled wool are lined up for sale in a storage area at South Canterbury coloured sheep farmer Stuart Albrey’s family farm.
By this stage their marketing arm had become Fine Fibre Farms and their stud, Larthmaw, was named after the first letter of each of the surnames of previous owners of the small block.

Initially they worked in partnership with another couple who ran homestays for Japanese clients at Mt Michael Station in the Hunter Hills.

One of the visitors — a keen knitter — was "gobsmacked" to learn lambs were born coloured as in their home country white wool was dyed black, brown, grey or silver.

A friendship developed and she bought wool from them which snowballed into her buying wool for friends and word got to a Japanese company who began buying wool. Another Japanese woman from this era still buys her wool from them today.

Needing to expand, they began looking at properties and a farm with a boundary on the north side of the Waihao River — which they still call home today — came up for auction.

A little larger than they initially wanted at 50ha, they now see it gave them everything they could possibly want.

The small farm has a balance of gentle rolling south-facing country — which might get wet in winter but hangs in during dry summer months — and generous river flats.

Former occupants had made a living on the small block from sheep and a commercial orchard of mainly peaches as well as apples and apricots.

The Albreys poured proceeds from their own wool and sheep sales, topped up by outside incomes, into developing this land. Eventually, the orchard trees were removed, as they took up too much time in their already busy lives.

Perhaps they could have made more money producing fat lambs on the land, but they were never tempted to deviate from coloured sheep.

Mr Albrey said they had no regrets as no monetary value could replace the pleasure this has given them, the nice people they had met and the many travels this had taken them to.

In this beautiful setting, they milled a small plantation of Macrocarpa trees with timber used to upgrade their house.

They replanted 11ha in pines on land unsuited for farming with many shelterbelts of various species lining paddocks.

For the first few years they stuck to coloured Romneys and Merinos which replaced the black Coopworths earlier.

A wall is lined with ribbons won at A&P shows for coloured sheep and wool in South Canterbury...
A wall is lined with ribbons won at A&P shows for coloured sheep and wool in South Canterbury farmer Stuart Albrey’s unique man cave.
Then a Central Otago breeder put up her purebred Polwarth flock for sale.

Unable to resist, they brought the stabilised three-quarter Merino and quarter Lincoln cross ewes home.

Polwarths are mainly a wool breed, although the Paterson family at Matakanui Station have been doing a lot of development work to make them a dual-purpose sheep.

Mr Albrey chiefly looked at them through a wool lens.

In the stock yards he parts the wool from one of his ewes to show the special feature that attracted him to them.

"The reason I really like the Polwarth is because the characteristics of the Merino are there so it’s softer, but what it also has is the length because of the Lincoln influence and the lustre. The lustre makes it spin nicely and it has like a semi-gloss finish and gives a garment a bit of life. So we had the Romneys and Merinos, developed the Polwarths and then there was quite a bit of demand for Corriedale wool so we then got to a fourth breed and all of them are registered purebreds. And now we’ve got five with English Leicesters."

Having so many studs was an intentional decision as they worked towards providing handcraft buyers many buying options.

Depending on the garment they wanted to spin, the Albreys would point them in the direction of a breed best serving their needs.

Three decades of teaching PE and health took a turn about eight years ago when the head of agriculture resigned. Unable to find takers, the principal approached him to stand in and eventually lead the programme.

This led to one of the more fulfilling periods in teaching as he built on existing work and introduced a Corriedale stud for the school with the support of the New Zealand Corriedale Breeders Society.

This ran successfully for four years with the students picking up hands-on skills in stockmanship and building yards until Mr Albrey retired last year and it was disbanded by his successor. If it was at all possible to reinstate the stud he would give it his full support.

One of his roles on the Black and Coloured Breeders Association of New Zealand is being the registrar for registered breeds.

New entries need to have breeding records for proof of lineage and be inspected by two inspectors.

Most of their members have commercial flocks with only a handful holding registered purebred sheep and they are trying to even this out.

Like the white wool industry, farmers have taken to crossbreeding for hybrid vigour.

Waimate breeders Stuart and Sue Albrey run studs for Romney, Merino, Polwarth, Corriedale and...
Waimate breeders Stuart and Sue Albrey run studs for Romney, Merino, Polwarth, Corriedale and English Leicester-coloured sheep.
Mr Albrey has no issues with this, but can see fewer purebred numbers in both coloured and white wool farming becoming problematic as farmers need to go back to purebreds to maintain this direction.

His own sheep have a coloured tag system and numbered brass tags to identify different breeds.

The challenge that keeps him hooked in breeding is continually improving their quality.

"The perfect sheep hasn’t been invented or bred yet, so there’s still lots of work to be done. The demand for Romney handcraft wools dropped and so we and several other breeders embarked on a programme to lower the micron and make the Romneys finer. We did that and the wool was really popular, right, but we went too far. So because of genetics you have these balances and as a result I bought a ram this year to strengthen my Romneys up a wee bit more."

That said, there are no complaints from handcraft buyers for the Romney wool lowered from about 34 microns to 28 microns. They find the fleece of Romney hoggets better suited for heavier-weight homespun jerseys or hardier garments that can take the knocks more than finer outerwear.

Hoping to travel more now they are "time rich", the Albreys have begun reducing ewe numbers from their peak of 200 to about 150 coloured purebreds.

This includes the latest addition of coloured English Leicesters, lambed for the first time this year.

These sheep come from the late Ross Manson of Mid Canterbury and Mr Albrey took them on because he did not want to see 45 years of breeding go down the road.

"Interestingly enough, I don’t like them one little bit. Their temperament is terrible — they are just arrogant and stroppy. But I will persevere with them for the very reason that they’re a very narrow gene pool."

It’s no secret that coloured-sheep farmers have made a better living from wool returns than mainstream strong wool.

Mr Albrey said this needed to be put into context.

A Polwarth fleece might cost $30 a kilogram, but 1.5kg in skirtings is removed from a 4kg fleece for handicrafts. The skirtings are only worth $1/kg.

"For the sake of easy maths let’s say we’ve got our 3kg of Polwarth worth $90 it then has to sit in a box and we wait hoping that someone wants to buy it. The other side of it is what I call the handicrafter’s stash. You talk to all of these spinners and weavers and they’ve all got their cupboards with half-used fleeces and that can be a barrier so even though you have a really nice fleece they might not be ready for it this year."

For the sake of a streamlined cashflow, they have learned to break down a fleece into 1kg portions so buyers have enough for a project, but keep coming back.

Rising postage costs have made overseas sales unviable so bales of a minimum of 40kg are now airfreighted.

Stuart Albrey parts the wool from a Polwarth ewe to show its lustre — the special feature that...
Stuart Albrey parts the wool from a Polwarth ewe to show its lustre — the special feature that convinced him to introduce the breed at his small Waimate farm.
This is among a selection of fleece, yarn offered by the ball and cone, combed top wool, sheep skins and a selection of finished adult and child garments sold each year to bring in income.

Mr Albrey said coloured wool had held its value compared with the "tragedy" of strong wool prices.

However, it was only a niche demand, he said.

"There’s not the demand for commercial quantities of coloured wool. We’ve got a couple of breeders who have mainly Merinos with larger flocks who have a niche commercial market. Generally, we set the price and the price is much higher than white wool, but the work involved is much higher as well."

He finds handicrafters never charge enough for their products, often subsidising many hours spent producing them.

"For a lot of them it’s a hobby giving them some spending money, but to try and do it commercially is hard so we never get the full value added on."

Where coloured wool sits comfortably with customers is its natural and renewable attributes with no dyes added.

Farming is not all smooth sailing though and they have encountered worm resistance and Salmonella Brandenburg in their flocks the past two years.

In one year they lost 50% of their lambs and 10% of their ewes from the disease during a wet year.

These setbacks were hard to stomach, but made them more resilient and the pleasure of farming had more than made up for this, he said.

In the same manner as he took an independent approach to spinning wool, he has worked hard to be proficient in the many skills from raising sheep to producing the finished product.

"I am probably one of very few people that I know in New Zealand who can go from putting the rams out, shearing the sheep, processing the wool, spinning the wool and creating a garment. A lot of people are really good at the sheep side of it and a lot are really good at the handcrafts, but I don’t know many who can do all of this."

Nor does he claim to be an specialist in any of these fields.

"I’m just competent and in fact I have a saying I would do brain surgery if they’d let me because I’ve got an inquiring mind and I want to have a crack at things.

"To do something well and to complete something as we develop the farm is reason enough."

South Canterbury coloured sheep farmer Stuart Albrey bought three big flat bed knitting machines...
South Canterbury coloured sheep farmer Stuart Albrey bought three big flat bed knitting machines when the Waimate Knitwear factory closed.
This extends to machine knitting.

In the shed opposite the homestead is a large workshop and a wool storage area with coloured wool neatly labelled in boxes. Further inside are three big flat bed knitting machines that came out of the Waimate Knitwear factory when it closed down.

A machine operator who he knew from athletics coaching put him on to this as they had been knitting yarn right up to the day the doors were closed and were only going to be scrapped.

Once the machines were shifted into place, he built the room around them and they knitted some trial cloth until needles were bent.

Mr Albrey is in talks with someone who is happy to read the manuals and hopefully recommission them as thousands of dollars of yarn prepared for the machines lie in wait.

Above the machines on a mezzanine floor is his own unique man cave. Instead of the normal car and oil sign paraphernalia his happy place is reserved for all things wool.

An entire wall is lined with ribbons won at A&P shows for his coloured sheep and wool. The spoils from winning the supreme national coloured fleece title and supreme coloured champion title at the Christchurch A&P Show are among them.

Pleasing for him are the inroads coloured sheep breeders have made to be accepted and respected in the showring after the sheep were once considered second-class citizens.

This he puts down to vast improvements made in the quality of coloured sheep and today they occasionally win all-breeds competitions.

In the man cave are hand-knitting machines and a spinning wheel perched in a corner alongside bins of hand-knitted Polwarth hats and scarves for infants.

Safely secured away is a baby shawl which is more than 1m² weighing 105 grams.

Knitting this was part of his rehabilitation from a shoulder reconstruction.

"One of the things I’ve worked hard on is being a competent handicrafter myself because I can then talk the language of the people who want our product. That’s interesting at times because some of them assume that a man doesn’t know very much about handcrafting so they get a bit of a surprise when they find I can do everything from a roughspun jersey to a lace-weight baby shawl."

The shawl took him more than 700 hours to complete and will become a family heirloom for the next chapter of the Albrey story.


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