Fieldays: Of bovines, broadband and woolly notions

The Fieldays media centre

I got up at 5.30 this morning to drive to the National Fieldays at Mystery Creek. While stuck in my first rural traffic jam that involved vehicles rather than cows, I realised that 5.30am wasn't really early enough.

More than 26,000 people visited Fieldays yesterday, and plenty more are expected to pass through over the next few days. There are over 1000 exhibitors, which means there's a lot of ground for me to cover.

A taste of what I've seen so far: drive-through electric fences, tractors, irrigators, digitally printed wool fabrics, dogs riding boogie boards, solar-powered electric fences, wireless broadband solutions for rural areas, and a lot of checked shirts.

Wool is cool

Now is a crucial time for the New Zealand wool industry—production is down, but demand is up, resulting in higher wool prices. The big question is how to increase productivity to take full advantage of the current market conditions. Of course, it helps to remember that there's a lot more to wool than just shearing sheep and making carpet (or fancy suits for John Key to wear to royal weddings).

Before we get into some of the more innovative stuff, let's get some of the basics straight. Thanks to an entertaining Fieldays demonstration starring Billy Black the shearer and Baa-bara the sheep I learned two important things about wool.

Sheep shearing action at FieldaysFirst, wool is fire retardant. Billy demonstrated this by trying to set fire to his merino t-shirt. The t-shirt did not burst into flames, much to everyone's relief.

Secondly, wool absorbs moisture. Billy helpfully suggested that if men bought their wives merino tops for Christmas, they could save money in the long term. This is because their wives would never have to wear perfume again, as wool draws moisture away from the skin, preventing sweat-related odours from festering.

And it's in the textile industry where a bunch of innovative sorts are embracing new technologies and adding new dimensions to what can actually be done with wool.

How to print on wool is a problem AUT University's Textile and Design Lab has sought to solve through investment in digital print technology. Digital printing allows speed and flexibility; with digital printing there is no limit to the number of colours you can use in a design, as is the case with screen printing. Digital textile printing is commonly used for one-off pieces, high-value designer goods, prototyping and pre-production work. Digital printing is also a cleaner, greener process, and it's more cost-effective—there are no set up processes or associated expenses.

Meanwhile, over at AgResearch, a textile science team has developed a new dyeing process that allows for blocks of colour, graphics and other effects to be dyed into the wool, rather than simply printed on the surface. This has a couple of benefits: the material looks and feels better than a standard printed fabric, and the pattern doesn't deteriorate over time. The technology is currently being commercialised by BGI Developments Ltd, and developments director Robyn George-Neich  these world-first developments in textile and fashion are "an excellent example of how technology can enhance New Zealand's exports".

While we're making huge strides in the development of the wool industry, there's still scope for more. Not to mention it seems Kiwi wool growers have a lot to teach the rest of the world about how we actually get the wool off the sheep's back. According to Billy, it is a popularly held belief in the US and Europe that sheep are either killed or drugged before they are shorn. Given the infiltration of American culture into New Zealand society, namely in the form of McDonalds and Wendy's, Billy expressed concern that Aucklanders may too start believing this sort of mumbo-jumbo. With our expansive green pastures, farming expertise and large sheep population, let us hope this never becomes a reality.

- Sarah Robson

Textiles from AgResearch and AUT

(L-R): A dyed merino dress by Annah Stretton/AgResearch and digitally printed merino seamless knitwear from the AUT Textile and Digital Lab

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