Retire? This farmer and teacher refired instead and went to Mongolia to share felt-making skills

Retire? This farmer and teacher refired instead and went to Mongolia to share felt-making skills

Vivienne is a felt maker, and refired (not retired) wool grower. She now lives in Orbost in East Gippsland with no sheep but lots of wool to play with. Vivienne loves the fibre and continues to spin, knit, dye and felt with it. Felting took her to Mongolia for three years to teach the basic skill to women in Govi Altai. Vivienne maintains a connection with these “wonderful people”. She enjoys passing her skills on to the next generation wherever she goes. 

By Vivienne Young

The “Uniting Our Rural Communities, Women on Farms” project in 1997 was a definite catalyst to launch me into something I had dreamed about doing for some time. I was teaching art and textiles at the local Orbost High School and breeding black and coloured sheep on our property at Mirragong at Wairewa, a beautiful valley with a small farming community, 37km west of Orbost. The sheep were Border Leicesters, known for their beautiful strong, lustrous fleece perfect for spinning, knitting and weaving. 

I had not yet been introduced to felt making. However, a casual remark: “You can’t felt Border Leicester wool,” challenged me to have a go. The result was amazing! Not fine and delicate, but strong and hard wearing, ideal for rugs, mats, hats, boots, hangings, installations and a felt shelter.

I did not turn on a computer until I went to Mongolia in 2010.

As an introduction to Women Who Mean Business (WWMB), I need to go back a few years. I grew up in Melbourne and Broken Hill, where I started school and lived there for three years before returning to Melbourne, but I never really enjoyed city life. As a teenager, as often as possible, I visited my cousins, on a farm about an hour out of Melbourne in the Yarra Valley. All the women in my family were knitters and back then the yarn was always wool. 

I trained as a teacher and received a posting at Orbost High School, starting 1965. By now I was in my early 20s and married a farmer. I have been farming and teaching ever since.

The three-day seminar at Orbost Football Clubrooms, in 1998, was open to any interested women on farms. Di Deppeler made my day when she bought my first felted purple hat.  The workshop leader Jill Gail offered encouragement to take the next step which was for me to set up a cottage industry on the farm. Now! I was 53. My husband and I had been farming for 32 years by this time, and we had four sons.

The group project that followed was the creation of a mosaic path leading down to Forest Park, portraying the diversity of the women involved.

This same year, 1998, I participated in a textile forum workshop at Mittagong, NSW, where a small group of felt makers made 21 metres of felt in three days for wall panels for a Mongolia style yurt, called a ger in Mongolia. This project was led by felt-maker Martine Van Zuilen who travelled to Mongolia briefly to research all aspects of construction from the expanding trellis frame, support posts and poles, and roof wheel to the felt coverings for wall and roof. This was my introduction to large scale felting. I returned home to Wairewa determined to construct an Aussie felt shelter. With the help of many woolly friends and family, we completed the shelter within 18 months from start to finish. We made seven large felt panels. My youngest son, in his early 20s, designed and made the metal frame, quick and easy to assemble and pull down and pack into a six-foot by four-foot trailer, very compact. 

I did take steps to start an on-farm wool business and Mirragong Woolworks was born in 1999. The sheep continued to multiply, and the amount of wool increased to the point where I was sending it away to be processed – where it was scoured and carded for spinning and felting, and some spun into yarn for knitters. I sent the wool to Meskill’s Wool Store in Kyneton, Victoria. The CSIRO did the scouring and Meskill’s carded, spun and plied the wool into yarn. It then returned to me as carded sliver for spinning or felting and five, eight and 12 ply yarns were knitted. 

Then the travelling started, to field days, festivals, farm expos and textile forums. So many people were hungry for real wool. We built a woolshed gallery on the farm and had open days and workshops there. I trained several girls in the arts of spinning, felting, dyeing and knitting, and we enjoyed the many adventures promoting wool and teaching felting.

At about this time, I was introduced to a remote farming community at Tubbut, about two and a half hours north of Orbost. The residents were struggling after years of drought followed by a devastating flood. I started teaching felting to the 16 students in the tiny one-teacher school, and they loved it. Soon the parents got involved and wanted to learn too. Even the shearer joined in after a long day shearing. I have many great memories of those special years, once a term for 10 years. At the same time, I was part of a local group of nine women called FABULOUS FELT. We had fun creating felt and exhibiting in various galleries around Victoria. One exhibition was at Queen’s Hall, Parliament House, Melbourne, and the children from Tubbut were invited to exhibit their felt work there. What a thrill for them!

Meanwhile, for six years I was custodian of a Ger, (a Mongolian round felt house), made here in Australia and known as the Australian Yurt Project. It travelled with me up and down the east coast from Farm World at Lardner in Victoria, through central NSW, to Queensland. Wherever it went, it created huge interest. 

Never did I dream that one day I would be living in Mongolia, working with women who lived in these simple, round felt shelters. In 2010 that is exactly what happened. I first visited Mongolia in 2004, on the way home from a felt conference, called “Felt the World Together”, in Hungary. In that brief week-long visit, I met a Mongolia felt maker, who invited my travelling companion Heather Hand and I back the following year to talk about the animals we were breeding for felting. Heather bred alpacas and I was breeding coloured sheep. I visited Mongolia several times after that as a felt maker, more to learn than to teach. Through “Interserve”, a Christian sending agency, I was then invited to go to Gobi Altai in western Mongolia for three months to teach basic felt making to a small group of women. 

The three months in 2010 turned into three years. I came home regularly, but each time went back for another three months. It was a most rewarding time getting to know these wonderful women, living in such a harsh desert place with a severe climate. Average winter temperatures were -35 C. Perfect for felt clothing! These 10 women now run their own co-op, selling their felt products around the world. They have had to learn English, computer skills, marketing, budgeting, and a host of other skills apart from the actual felt making. It has given them an income, skills and dignity.

I continue to go to Mongolia once a year to connect with my many friends there, and deliver woollen clothes to homeless men, women and children mostly in the capital city.

I now live in town in Orbost with a big shed, no sheep, but plenty of wool to keep me occupied for years to come. I have been told that we don’t retire, we “refire”. At 75, I like that! Mirragong Wool has relocated from place to place, and now operates not as a business, but to kindle a love for wool and its qualities in the hearts of many people.

Postscript: 

My contribution to the “Salute to Australia” at the Second International Women in Agriculture Conference, held in Washington DC, USA in 1998, was panel number 15 which comprised a decorated box, a poem and a picture of me with triplet black lambs.

The Poem

Dishes in the sink and the floor unswept, 

Wool is taking over, into every room its crept;

Spinning wheel is busy turning fibre into yarn,

Trying hard to empty all the bales in the barn. 

Garden is a jungle, but the roses will bloom, 

No time for pulling weeds and setting up the loom.

Dye pot active every day; it will never rust; 

Knitting needles flying fast, they don’t gather dust. 

Piles of carded woolly batts turning into felted hats, 

And bags and vests and this and that’s,

And lacy shawls and big thick mats.

The capable woman, Proverbs says, who creates from fibre and fleece, is worth far more than precious jewels; her heart and mind are at peace.

Viv Young 1997

One Response

  1. Jill Gael says:

    Hi Viv
    Why am I not surprised to read your AMAZING story!!! So much fire for life, people and wool!!!!
    Cheers
    Jill Gael

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