Tribute to past weaves its own spell

The carpet loom in action.
The carpet loom in action.

Geelong, temporary exhibits until February 3

THE function of the Dennys Lascelles Wool Stores (one of many in Geelong in the 1900s) was to facilitate the movement of wool from producers to buyers in domestic and overseas markets. This 1872 bluestone building now houses the National Wool Museum.

With staged settings of period equipment, the museum relates the history of Australian sheep farming, the working life of shearers, the mechanical production of yarn and the different aspects of industrial weaving. It also hosts the biennial Expressions Wool Quilt Prize.

Markets, including the labour market, feature in every stage of wool harvesting and of turning fleece into fabric. From a bush poet's chalked graffiti, ''Shorn today - fleeced tomorrow,'' on the wall of an early-20th century interior, we are forced to acknowledge the bitter fight for workers' rights by shearers in the 1890s, the time of Tom Roberts' Shearing the Rams, which features in one of the booths.

At the heart of the museum is a gripper-type carpet loom. It is relatively narrow, having been built to weave carpet 69 centimetres wide. You won't find a brand name on it, but it was engineered in 1910 by Brintons, in England's Midlands, where the firm has made carpets since the 1780s.

This loom was operating at Brintons' factory in Geelong from 1960 to '75, and then at the Melbourne College of Textiles until '88, when it was donated to the museum. You can view it from all angles as you mount the ramp that circles it, and by which you access galleries.

With its Jacquard punch-card system suspended over his head and, stretching before him, hundreds of spools of yarn arranged in a grid 20 rows high and even more rows long, the operator stands as if at the wheel of a seagoing vessel.

Airborne colours stream into the mechanism, being manufactured as Axminster at a rate of about 55 centimetres every 20 minutes.

The palette of the museum's exclusive Manor House Rug was modified for the Australian market by Brintons from a vintage design, its Persian origins being evident. What would that bush poet have made of the class-privilege of the name?

Brintons closed its Australian operation in 2008 with the loss of about 100 jobs, the Geelong Advertiser reporting that ''cheap Chinese imports, coupled with a high Australian dollar and reduced tariffs meant the plant could no longer compete''.

But the writing was on the wall for the Australian textiles industry for decades before the closure of the Fellmongers Road plant, and a sense of loss pervades this museum. Displayed in a temporary exhibitions gallery are contemporary woollen quilts by the 26 shortlisted entries in the seventh biennial Expressions Wool Quilt Prize, the award going to Carolyn Sullivan for her skill with shibori (Japanese tie-dye).

Evident in some of the quilts is the use of old blankets very like the ones that feature in the factory finishing room. See the embroidered and dye-stained quilt by Michele Eastwood, and one by Deborah McArdle who has transformed this unlovely material by a concentric motif, seemingly placed randomly, but so closely worked that her stitching subtly animates the entire surface of the quilt. It's affecting in its modesty.

Finally, with itinerant rural workers such as shearers in mind, check out two entries that celebrate waggas, the bush blankets made by layering two or three sacks, usually stitched with twine, and often the handiwork of men: a flour bag, tailor's samples and a story of stock routes went into Margaret Kretschmer's; and a similar commitment to recycling is apparent in Paull McKee's use of a seed bag and discarded blankets.

This story Tribute to past weaves its own spell first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.