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Image by Ans Westra, courtesy of {Suite}
Image by Ans Westra, courtesy of {Suite}

PartnersJuly 27, 2023

Wool’s gold: how Swanndri became a New Zealand icon

Image by Ans Westra, courtesy of {Suite}
Image by Ans Westra, courtesy of {Suite}

How a 1900s-designed woollen overshirt tells the tale of rain and mud, durability and vision and speaks of the role this fibre has played in our human lives. 

In the 1984 film Vigil, a bearded stranger walks out of the bush with a man slung over his shoulder and takes his place on the farm. He wears a hooded top under an old suit jacket. Later we see him docking lambs, knife in hand, the olive-green hooded top covered in mud. 

In one of the many photos of New Zealand pig hunters catalogued online, a boar hangs over the shoulders of a hunter wearing a woollen bush shirt, its raised hood allowing for the head of the pig to rest against the head of the man. The top is long, almost a dress in form. In some ways it’s the strangest of garments: a long, draped woollen garment designed as workwear, an icon of masculinity conceived for harsh, inclement weather. 

The hooded top in question is a Swanndri bush shirt designed by William Broome, a natty dresser who had settled in New Plymouth in the early 20th century and established himself as a tailor and textile merchant. The one easily available photo of Broome shows him mid-stride in a well fitted three-piece suit and bowler hat. In the entrepreneurial spirit we pride ourselves on, Broome recognised there was a gap in the market for rural workwear, creating a simple short sleeved top with a laced front. Then in 1913 he trademarked the logo of a swan and the brand name Swanndri, a secret waterproofing formula its unique selling point. 

“Whatever was in that magic potion, the waterproofing of Swanndri garments provided the backbone from which the brand was built,” says the Swanndri website. 

Wool’s own secret lies in the structure of its fibres, the outer layer shaped somewhat like fish scales, combined with a natural coating in the form of lanolin, a wax secreted from the sebaceous glands of sheep. It’s much like the oily substance that coats the feathers of ducks and swans – hence the name Swanndri. 

Amazingly, wool itself manages to be both hydrophobic and hydrophilic, meaning it can both repel moisture and absorb it. Along with that mysterious treatment, it’s those qualities that allow for the bush shirt to work in all seasons and all elements, in environments both hot and cold.

Still from ‘Field Punishment No 1’ – courtesy of Lippy Pictures

So one can’t talk about the bush shirt without talking about wool; of its versatility, its durability and its suitability for the rugged outdoors. Human bodies are the least equipped of all the animals to deal with inhospitable climates; the wonder fibre, wool, has enabled us to prosper. The first woven wool garments date back to around 300BC. Somewhat more recently, in the late 1800s hefty three-piece woollen suits made in the South Island were deposited by the NZ government in metal drums around the sub Antarctic islands and intended for marooned castaways. While many were worn and saved lives, Te Papa has one of these suits which remained unworn and was collected (still in perfect condition) in 1947 by a United States ship. 

When I costume-designed a film about Archibald Baxter’s conscientious objection in WW1, Field Punishment No. 1, we soaked our largely begged, borrowed and hired stock of mostly WW2-era army uniforms in buckets of mud to recreate their wear in the trenches. They were then hung to dry, wire brushed, sometimes submerged again, all to create the texture of having been worn through thick and thin for months. Once we had finished filming, the wool responded to our rigorous cleaning and we were able to get the uniforms back to their original state. These uniforms were all made in Kaiapoi from NZ wool. 

When manufacturing and wool scouring was all done in New Zealand (Image: Supplied by Swanndri)

John McKendrick, the tailor who made garments under licence for the Broome family out of his Waitara factory, made some additions to the bush shirt in 1927. He added the hood, the long sleeves, and the olive green colour. McKendrick’s design is the iconic piece of clothing we still know so well. In the 1960s his company John Mack bought the rights to Swanndri and continued to manufacture the garments until Alliance Textiles took over in the 1970s. 

The resulting garment, now widely considered the OG of the Swanndri stable, has come down off the mountains and paddocks, and over the years been stylistically co-opted and reinterpreted by various generations and subcultures. Vintage Swanndri finds are often skited about, or a grandfather’s Swanni proudly worn. Legendary images abound – the long Swanni paired with white freezing work gumboots; worn with mirrored glasses outside a donut shop in an Ans Westra photo; with Dr Martens in a wintry queue outside a Dunedin gig; with platform heels and make up in an editorial from the 90s; sleeves cut off with a huge wig at a Hero party; at Glastonbury with bare legs and Hunter gumboots; or completely remade as a conceptual coat by student Andrea Tinning, as part of a design brief set by Wools of NZ in 1998.  

‘Conceptual Swanndri’, 1998, Wellington, by Andrea Tinning. Purchased 1998 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. © Te Papa. Te Papa (GH007399)

I have just finished working on a film which was shot in the Castle Hill / Kura Tāwhiti area in wintry conditions. While the costume didn’t include a Swanni, the leads’ costumes were largely made from wool, not only for the aesthetic and textural quality  of the woven and knitted yarn, but also for the performative properties that enabled the requirements of the costume – to become dirty and clean up easily, to be submerged in deep water and to have movement, and to keep the actors warm through long, cold night exterior shoots. 

Driving back from the film I called into Yaldhurst Wools, the strong wool merchants and exporters on the outskirts of Christchurch, where Swanndri is also based. The luxury lodge we have been shooting in uses their Exquisite Wool Blankets range in the bedrooms. Owner-operators Ross and Polly McGuckin’s love of wool is in their blood, as they have been working with wool, independently and together, since they can remember. Ross speaks of the small margins they work with, and of the Swanny jacket he got as a teenager in the mid 80s which his kids still wear around the farm. 

Still from Vigil (Image courtesy of Vincent Ward)/A close-up of an original bush shirt with lace front (Image supplied by Swanndri)

On getting home to Auckland I hear on the news that the Ministry of Education has given the carpet tender for 600 rural schools to an American company. Milliken was an early pioneer in manufacturing synthetic fibres and today is a leading producer of synthetic carpet tiles. It too is a family business, initially striking it big by selling wool uniforms to the Union Army during the US Civil War.  

Milliken is a specialty chemical and performance materials company. Its website proclaims the slogan ‘For Humankind’ superimposed over feel-good images of surfers and of snow-covered mountains, mixed with people in work situations, sometimes hugging and smiling. 

The education ministry spokesperson says the solution-dyed nylon tile fulfills its recycling and carbon footprint goals. It would be interesting to learn how this recycling is intended to work. 

Swanndri biodegradation study (Image: Swanndri)

Working in Glenorchy on a TV commercial I spoke to the sheep farmer whose high country station we were shooting on. He told me how recently when buying carpet for his home the salesman tried to sell him synthetic carpet. Selling synthetic carpet made from petrochemicals to a sheep farmer, now that’s a trick.    

I go online again to a favourite wool site, Woolmark – a global authority on merino wool based in Australia, which is highly active in the contemporary fashion, technical innovation and environmental sphere of textiles. Over the image of a female figure literally covered in a black liquid substance, its 2022 campaign states that “every 25 minutes, an Olympic sized pool of oil is used to make synthetic clothing”. It seems undeniable that the production of synthetic textiles has enabled the fast fashion industry with their “pile them high, sell them cheap” business model. 

On the other, older hand, Swanndri are themselves carrying out a biodegradation study where they are monitoring how a buried “original bush shirt” decomposes over time in order to test the life cycle of their products, and to provide proof that their garments can be both durable and sustainable. As wool decomposes it releases nitrogen, sulphur and magnesium back into the soil like a slow release fertiliser. 

The Swanndri original bush shirt has survived the invention of polar fleece (a fabric designed to mimic and surpass wool and which is now known to release environmentally damaging microfibers), and exists today virtually unchanged not out of a sense of nostalgia, but because it is a well-designed, utilitarian garment that can clothe multiple generations. Many natural properties are all at work in the Swanni, in the same way they have been since we started wearing wool those hundreds of years ago.

Keep going!