A Visit to the National Wool Museum

The Bicycle Brigade used trains and bicycles to travel to sheep stations.
The Bicycle Brigade used trains and bicycles to travel to sheep stations.

Did you know that sheep shearers in the late 1800s often traveled over 1000 miles during shearing season to shear all of those 100 million sheep? And did you know that to travel these large distances the shearers used bicycles and trains? This bit of information, gathered from the National Wool Museum, grabbed my  attention because  Eric and I are also using the trains and our bicycles to cover the large distances in Australia.

After cycling through hundreds of sheep stations (It took me forever to understand that a “station” is like ranch, not a place to catch a train) over the past four months, a visit to Australia’s National Wool Museum in Geelong, Australia seemed like a logical place to spend some time before cycling south to Torquay.

This museum is great covering everything from sheep to shawl. As a matter of fact,  even though I thought I understood sheep farming pretty well from my kindergarten field trips to the local sheep farm near my country school, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

There were many things I liked about the Wool Museum. First was the warm and friendly greeting by the museum docent. I could feel his pride for the museum which only made me more eager to see the contents. The building, a lovely example of late 1800s architecture, is well restored and a perfect location for the museum. The working Axminster Gripper Carpet Loom is an excellent example of sophisticated technology for it’s day; the design of the grippers that look like the beak of birds are still used on carpet looms today. Watching a demonstration of the machine helped me understand the industrial weaving process. I also enjoyed seeing a video of a recent sheep shearing contest and another video showing sheep herding dogs at work.

Here are some random things that I learned:

The Axminster Gripper Carpet Loom can weave 27 inches of carpet in 20 minutes. So, if I had some room on my bicycle and a lot of extra cash, I could order and bring home a new runner for my hallway the same day.

The cards used to set the design are binary (on/off) similar to modern computers.
The cards used to set the design are binary (on/off) similar to modern computers.

There was a large strike of sheep shearers when the owners introduced the faster and larger 4 bladed shearers over the old 3 bladed style. Imagine a pair of clippers causing a loss in job security just like robots and factory atomization do today.

The bigger shears on the left caused a strike.
This guy is not too happy about the  bigger shears on the left.

The song “Waltzing Matilda” is based up shearing disputes in the 1890s. I’ve always loved this song and I’d thought it was about a man dancing with a broom (probably from the picture in my elementary school music book. ) I also learned some new vocabulary: “billabong” is a water hole, and “Matilda” is a bundle used for holding personal belonging.

Not only do I recommend this museum, I have a use for the information I learned. Next time I board an Australian train, I’ll ask the folks at Australian Rail if the sheep shearers of the 1890s had to box their bicycles before loading them on the train.  I’ll bet they didn’t. *


*We were allowed to roll our bicycles on to the commuter trains in Sydney. But to ride Rail Australia between Yass and Melbourne we had to box our bikes. What a hassle!