Black sheep and the people who love them

author avatar
Corowa coloured sheep enthusiast Shirley Unthank holds a range of ‘tops’ — a type of semi-processing raw wool people can buy and spin themselves. “For some reason, people love these multi-coloured braids, they catch the eye.” Photo by Daneka Hill

Coloured sheep are the literal black sheep of the wool industry.

For farmers who are paid per bale of pure white wool, there is nothing useful about a coloured sheep. But retired accountant Shirley Unthank has a passion for the underdogs.

Behind her house on the outskirts of Corowa, Ms Unthank is busy with lambing season.

“We had our first triplets ever last night,” Ms Unthank said.

“I’m watching the mother closely to make sure she can manage them. Sheep only have two teats.”

On her 4.5-hectare property, Mrs Unthank has 30 ewes about to pop and a separate paddock of rams and ram-lambs in a rainbow of dark colours.

Pictured is Nigel, a hand-raised ram. “Nigel is my last sheep whenever I do crutching or shearing. He doesn’t get spooked when left alone,” Ms Unthank says. Nigel was the ram used over the ewes this season. Photo by Daneka Hill

The small flock provides wool to Karoa Fabrics, a business run by the French family who specialise in selling raw fleece to hand spinners.

What the hand spinners don’t buy is scoured and combed into either top (long fibres ready to be spun) or processed into yarn.

Ms Unthank has been involved with Karoa Fabrics since she met the founders — sheep farmers John and Sue French — through the rural fire brigade.

“I used to volunteer with the brigade and I met John there. I grew up knitting and I was interested in what they were doing,” she said.

“The wool is grown around Corowa and processed in Wangaratta. It’s 100 per cent Australian.”

Piles of raw wool are housed meticulously in Ms Unthank’s shed, waiting for customers or further processing at the Wangaratta Woollen Mill. Photo by Daneka Hill

Karoa Fabrics sells through its stall at farmers’ markets across northern Victoria and the Riverina.

“We also do the Canberra Wool Expo and the Bendigo Sheep Show,” Ms Unthank said.

“At the wool show we’ll sell an awful lot because it’s over three days and most of the people — and I say people because a lot of blokes love spinning and knitting too — are wool lovers.”

“We also find some country people who retire into town will buy a bag of raw wool just to have the smell in their house.”
Ms Unthank says none of her sheep are a true black. “Even the darkest of them, when you look close, are still brown.” Photo by Daneka Hill

Retirement has kept Ms Unthank busy.

Not only is she running rare sheep and attending farmers’ markets, she also does the books for Karoa Fabrics and serves as treasurer for two different associations — the Black and Coloured Sheep Breeders and the Australian Fibre Collective.

“The Australian Fibre Collective started in 2019 right before COVID hit,” she said.

“During the pandemic people started saying ‘buy Australian grown, buy Australian made’ and that’s what we (AFC) help people do.”

The Australian Fibre Collective logo. The not-for-profit association formed in 2019 to promote transparency in the wool supply chain and encourage the use of sustainable, natural, low-carbon fibres. Photo by Daneka Hill

The AFC logo was developed by a group of passionate wool growers to place on products that are 100 per cent grown and processed in Australia.

“We’re not trying to compete with the green and gold,” Ms Unthank said.

“But the green and gold doesn’t necessary mean it’s 100 per cent Australian. Our point of difference is we guarantee it’s fully an Australian product.”

The sheep are a special Bond x Merino cross established by the French family. “Up here we go from -4 to 44 degrees and the Bond sheep has a fairly tight fleece across their back which helps stop wool rot. We’ve put a bit of Merino through to give them a soft handle for the hand spinners,” Ms Unthank says. In 2006, some brown Bond (Moorit) genetics were introduced to the flock. Photo by Daneka Hill

Raised on a Mornington Peninsula dairy farm, Ms Unthank made the move to Corowa after securing a job with the Bunge piggery business.

“I worked for them in Melbourne, then I moved out here. I was originally in town but the empty blocks around me got built on and I thought ‘right, I’m out of here’,” she said.

Ms Unthank described the Australian black and coloured sheep industry as a friendly one.

“We don’t see each other as competition,” she said.

“We’ve seen processors come and go and the only way they will stick around is if they are kept busy processing wool. It’s more important to make sure everyone stays in business and is earning a little bit than to outcompete.”

“They get sunbleached just like us. All sheep do, but you can’t see it on white wool.” Photo by Daneka Hill

When asked what her favourite product was, Ms Unthank said it was the cones of yarn.

“A ball of yarn might be 50 milligrams of wool and even doing a small project you run out and have to attach new yarn. A cone is over 20 grams and it’s all one long piece,” she said.

“I’m a lazy knitter. I’ll use the round needles and knit from a cone so I don’t have to stop.”

“I’ve only got 30-odd sheep here, but I run it like a farm,” Ms Unthank says. “I don’t name any of the ewes. Only the rams. My first ram was named Mr Stupid because he kept getting his horns stuck in the fence.” The ram pictured is called ‘No Name’. Photo by Daneka Hill