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Elite - another golden fleece

THE 2020 Ermenegildo Zegna ‘Vellus Aureum’ award for the world’s finest and best fleece was won by David and Susan Rowbottom of Rowensville at St Helens – their sixth win in seven years.

Ermenegildo Zegna is a world renown, Italian luxury fashion house founded in 1910 at Trivero, Biella Province in northern Italy.

The competition is based on Greek Mythology – ‘the search for the Golden Fleece’ – Vellus meaning golden and Aureum meaning fleece.

I caught up with David and Susan to see what started them on the path that has won them world acclaim.

When did you decide to go down the ‘superfine/ultrafine merino’ path and what prompted that decision?

DAVID explained that “our introduction to superfine merino’s was by accident, not planned”.

“In 1976 we leased 320 acres from Jane Laidlaw, who purchased the land from Vic Edwards who was retiring,” he said.

“Vic had 600 pure ‘Chatsworth House’ blood merino ewes for sale. 

“It was in the dead of winter, superfine wool was in the doldrums, the ewes were as cheap as dirt – we purchased them with no intention of breeding merinos.”

SHEARING in full swing and those Golden Fleeces hit the table for classing. Photo: SUPPLIED

It was on the first shearing of these sheep that David was particularly impressed by one bale of a long, stapled wool type – as opposed to the balance of the wool clip, which was shorter stapled and less yielding.

The bale was tested at 20.4 micron and David decided to breed wool of this style but much finer – the path was laid.

The price of this bale was 267 cents per kilogram – thousands of cents behind the record setting top superfine merino producers at that time. 

The challenge was set.

What is it that makes your ultrafine merino fleeces so exceptional – how did you get to this point?

NOW with a firm direction in place – David learnt wool classing at night school and was introduced to quantitative genetics in Tasmania.

“David bought every book he could lay his hands on and spent years self-training in genetics and various sheep selection and classing methods,” Susan said.

A major advantage for David was that he had no preconceived ideas on what the wool should look like – so he developed his own ideas and selection methods, and has developed the flock from superfine to ultrafine at a far faster rate than his peers.

They were setting the occasional Australian seasonal record price, and their industry reputation grew.

They began selling rams and wethers to several ultrafine producers.

The Horsham wool factory won the Vellus Aureum competition with a fleece from one of the Rowensville wethers, and second and third places were won by producers using their bloodlines.

When son Aaron came home to work on the farm, the decision was made to enter the housed sheep industry themselves. At the time, ultrafine wool prices were collapsing, and business profitability was difficult. 

TWO second places in the first two years of entering the Vellus Aureum competition was all the motivation required - and in the third year they won the first of six of these awards.

The win was inspiring, but the challenges remained – it was financially a difficult industry to be in.

When you are at the top of the industry – who do you learn from?

“DAVID believes our success is the result of taking a different approach to the genetic selection of ultrafine breeding - with an emphasis on selecting for the characteristics in the wool that will influence the sheep to evolve finer,” Susan said.

“With nowhere to purchase these genetics, they could only be selected from within our own flock – from a clear and distinct picture etched in his mind, as to what the wool should look like.”

After all the industry awards and recognition, what keeps you motivated?

DAVID remains motivated by believing that the wool is still improving, and that they have not yet produced the best they can.

One of his aims is to break the 9.9-micron world record Vellus Aureum win they achieved in 2016 – an extremely difficult task.

ONE of 60 suits made in Italy from Vellus fabric. The Rowbottoms’ 2014 winning fleece was used to make this beautiful suit. Photo: SUPPLIED.

You have visited the Ermenegildo Zegna factory and others in Italy – what was that experience like?

“WE spent a week with other Australian Superfine Wool Growers Association (ASWGA) members in the Biella region, where we visited six factories and a scour,” Susan said.

The big thing that stood out to them was how environmentally friendly these factories were – from solar power to cleaning/filtering water before it re-enters waterways and planting trees to improve the environment. 

There is also a big focus on locally produced food and produce.

The factory’s have long family histories and have been operating for between 150- 357 years, with all patterns, dyes and sample clothes archived. 

In 2013, Barberis Canonica turned 350 years old (older than Australia has been settled) - to celebrate they made a special cloth from wool from each state of Australia, one of Rowenville’s bales was included.

All mills have embraced technology combining the old and new methods.

The more mundane jobs are taken over by robots, while worker health is cared for by the modern spinning and weaving machines.

Computers can catalogue warehouses of cloth stored for dispatch, while cloth is still checked for flaws by the eye.

“We went to a restaurant one evening in Old Biella where each dish was explained, they used local produce grown within 50-100km,” Susan said.

“This is another thing we found, people use local and want to know where the wool comes from, animal husbandry and the farm environmental program. I believe this has become stronger since then.”

The wool from the fleeces in the Vellus Aureum are used to make 60 suits which are sold worldwide and are made to measure. 

A Melbourne store has been fortunate to sell one in the past. 

These suits sell for tens of thousands of dollars.

Where do you see the super fine/ultra-fine merino industry heading in the future?

TOGETHER, they remain confident that if they continue to produce an exceptional product then there should always be demand.

A shift in consumer thinking towards natural fibres – away from synthetics which contribute to pollution – will only strengthen the wool industry. 

For David and Susan – they have gained a lot personally from being in the industry.

They say that they know most of the top superfine/ultrafine producers in Australia. 

The Ermenegildo Zegna presentation nights are always a highlight – they have visited their factory and several other Italian mills – an experience not to be forgotten.

They both agree that being in the industry is not about money – to them it’s about the people and the experiences they share along the way.

Having family coming up behind them is a big motivator and additional incentive to keep them striving even harder. 

What is your advice to newcomers in the wool industry?

DAVID and Susan’s advice to newcomers is “the industry continues in up and down cycles; our advice is to weather the storms – it always comes good. 

“Our worst experience is not that of the wool industry, but the period of high interest rates – a very difficult time, and one that we are very fortunate in being able to put that behind us,” they said.

In the current COVID-19 conditions, the Ermenegildo Zegna presentation dinner was cancelled and the Rowbottom’s will be presented with their award at some point in the future.

What started with a vision and a single-minded determination to pave their own path, has turned St Helen’s ultrafine merino farmers - David and Susan Rowbottom, into the best in the world.  Having the confidence to build knowledge and trust yourself has most certainly paid big dividends.

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