Creswick Woollen Mills celebrate 70 years

While Creswick Woollen Mills have been one of the success stories of the region, here a a few facts about the business you may not know of.

INTRODUCTION

When Pinches Ryzowy arrived in Australia just after the Second World War, he had already seen enough of life’s cruelties to write a harrowing novel.

Fleeing the German Wehrmacht advancing across his native Poland, he left his family and struck out into Russia, avoiding death in the freezing winter and capture by the Nazis or the Red Army.

Paul Ryzowy in his mill. he lived to be 96, dying in 2008.

Paul Ryzowy in his mill. he lived to be 96, dying in 2008.

He made his way to Japan, and onto the Chinese mainland, escaping as a refugee from Shanghai to the United States. Reestablishing himself through connections, he emigrated to Australia in 1947.

Somewhere along the way ‘Pinches’ became the Anglicised ‘Paul’. 

Ryzowy was not a native textile manufacturer, but rather a gifted businessman. However, a fellow immigrant friend had a background in cloth and wool spinning, and the pair decided to start a woollen mill. Utilising his negotiating wizardry (this was a man who’d negotiated his very existence across three continents), he managed to get the notoriously conservative banks of the day to extend him a £25,000 loan.

Lexi Herszfeld, daughter of Boaz, is the latest generation to help at the mill. Picture: Caleb Cluff.

Lexi Herszfeld, daughter of Boaz, is the latest generation to help at the mill. Picture: Caleb Cluff.

WOOL IN AUSTRALIA

Australia, of course, had risen on the sheep’s back. Wool was famously heading towards ‘a pound a pound’ (in 1951, briefly), making graziers across the country able to purchase new Bentley motor cars following each year’s clip. Shearers were a protected occupation, immune from army service during the war.

Over the two world wars, Australian fleeces uniformed the troops of the Empire and Commonwealth, made the blankets which covered them and the bomb fuses in their artillery shells.

An Australian Army blanket of the Second World War.

An Australian Army blanket of the Second World War.

Victorian towns had their own knitting mills churning out woollen products for the war effort. From Maryborough to Ballarat women worked producing undergarments and bedwear, tunics and trousers.

In Creswick, a former wickerworks factory that had produced the wine bottles for the region lay unused. Bottles were once cased in wicker to protect them from smashing against each other in transport, but advances in packing made the business obsolete.

It was a lucky choice. had the pair decided to establish ion Carlton or Abbotsford, real estate prices would have long closed the business.

Derelict: the former wicker cover factory in Creswick Ryzowy adapted for the mill. Picture: CWM.

Derelict: the former wicker cover factory in Creswick Ryzowy adapted for the mill. Picture: CWM.

Paul Ryzowy approached the Secondary Industries Commission, the government department responsible for the allocation of regional factory sites to new businesses, and was granted the approval to begin manufacturing on the 10-acre site. He began making grey woollen blankets for the army to be used in the Korean War.

It was the start of a business which has survived the travails of Australian manufacturing for 70 years.

FROM FLEECE TO FINISH

Robbie Shellew has been working at the Creswick Woollen Mills for 30 years. He began in maintenance, but now describes himself as a ‘rouseabout’.

He is standing in front of the enormous carding machines which process raw alpaca fleece into the thread used in blankets and knitwear – vast grey apparatus comprised of giant spiked rollers, whirring battens and dark greasy cogs. That these machines produce a fine, light thread at the end of their clacking processes seems somehow incongruous.

Carding is the process that cleans, oils and aligns the fibres in fleece, allowing them to be broken out and combed into a yarn which can later be spun.

The rouseabout: Robbie Shellew is responsible for the maintenance and operation of the carding and threading machines at the mill. Picture: Lachlan Bence.

The rouseabout: Robbie Shellew is responsible for the maintenance and operation of the carding and threading machines at the mill. Picture: Lachlan Bence.

”They haven’t changed much since the late 1800s,” Robbie says. 

“What you see here you would have seen in the 1800s, except for electric motors.”

Robbie is constantly sweeping over and around his carding machine as it turns the fleece into yarn, removing fleece that jams in fans and belts and making sure the thread rolls onto the giant bobbins evenly.

“All sorts of things go wrong: bearings and belts and jam-ups. Sometimes a long alpaca fibre wraps around the rollers and you have to stop.”

Despite the occasional hiccup, Robbie Shellew is a fan of alpaca as a clothing fleece.

“It’s a lot smoother, longer in length, and to me it’s actually warmer.”

Robbie Shellew works the card and comb machine.

SAVING LIVES

One of the most recognisable products the Creswick Woollen Mills produce, and one mill owner Boaz Herszfeld is most proud of, is the Country Fire Authority protective blanket.

The mill has supplied woollen blankets to the CFA for over 20 years. With upgrades in safety standards compelling higher heat resistance, the mill worked with the CSIRO to develop a safer and more fire-retardant blanket.

Lifesaver: The Creswick Woollen Mills produce the personal protection blanket for the CFA.

Lifesaver: The Creswick Woollen Mills produce the personal protection blanket for the CFA.

The distinctive red personal protection blankets are a blend of wool and aramid, a fire-resistant nylon fabric. They’ve been manufactured since 2003, and proved their value in the 2009 Black Saturday fires, when the Upper Ferntree Gully brigade found themselves directly in the course of the fire.

Their captain Peter Smith puts the crew’s survival down to the effectiveness of the blankets.

“Without the blankets we would not be alive today. There should be one for every person. Every truck should carry them,” he said.

A LITTLE-KNOWN FACT

Creswick Woollen Mills manufacture hanks of wool for use by the Victorian Railways in the bogies of their rolling stock.

Hanks being spun for the Victorian Railways. They are used in the suspension of bogies. Picture: Caleb Cluff.

Hanks being spun for the Victorian Railways. They are used in the suspension of bogies. Picture: Caleb Cluff.

REINVENTING A BUSINESS

Boaz Herszfeld became the CEO of his grandfather’s mill despite the best efforts of Paul Ryzowy to dissuade him.

He remembers spending his childhood holidays at the mill, working with his grandfather and later taking small jobs as they came up.

But Ryzowy wasn’t keen for his grandson to follow him into the textile business. He insisted on him taking a university degree, which Herszfeld duly completed (Bachelor of Commerce). When he had done that, he returned and asked for a job.

“He said ‘No, no, textiles is a dying industry, you don’t want that.’ So I became a chartered accountant – and then I came back again and said ‘I want to work for you’. I was very persistent, I took a year of leave without pay from the accounting firm to work for him.”

“Within six months of me working for him our biggest customer, Linda electric blankets, went into administration. Paul lost a third of his business, and other things weren’t going so well. That was 1998 –1999. So my year of leave without pay has gone on for almost 20 years.”

Take a tour through the mill

Let’s backtrack a little.

Creswick Woollen Mills first products were the grey army blankets issued to Australian and US forces for the Korean War. Many of their products were made from recycled dark-coloured woollen clothing. This was at a time when recycling was not as well known as today, largely because wastage was so much less.

The blankets were made from what was known as ‘shoddy’, woollen remnants shredded and rewoven to make a new textile. It was a coarse but strong wool, ideal for making the black Bluey jackets that evolved from the Tasmanian woollen prisoner jackets of the 19th Century. Which is exactly where the Creswick Woollen Mill sent their version.

Later, the recycled garments of the 1960s and 70s used much brighter colours - pinks and yellows and oranges. These became the familiar colours used in the Linda electric blankets. They were suitable because electric blankets were hidden from view for their working life.

Creswick Woollen Mills owners Sharon and Boaz Herszfeld. Picture: Dylan Burns.

Creswick Woollen Mills owners Sharon and Boaz Herszfeld. Picture: Dylan Burns.

Boaz Herszfeld says the company would order around a thousand tonnes of secondhand and remaindered jumpers a year.

“They had eight women out the back, cutting off the zippers, cutting off the labels,” says Mr Herszfeld.

“All the blacks and navys would go at the start of the season. You’d be left with greens and browns and purples. That’s ok – greens and browns go into a nice plaid or check for the Billabong picnic blanket.

“And we were left with ugly oranges and pinks and greens. They became the Linda blankets you slept ‘wonderfully warm’ with.

INTO THE FUTURE

Each week, busloads of Chinese tourists come to the mill to buy the new products Boaz Herszfeld has introduced to the specially-created showrooms built for them.

Tastefully lit and full to the roof with blankets, quilts, throws and garments, the rooms represent the new approach Mr Herzfeld has taken to ensuring the survival of the last coloured yarn spinning mill left in Australia.

The CEO says he has had to embrace value-adding and onselling other products to supplement the work of the mill. While 80,000 to 100,000 visitors come to embrace the history of the mill each year, it’s the sales to overseas clients and the supply to big retailers such as David Jones that ensure the survival of the business.

“We couldn’t keep on selling unbranded items to manufacturers. Invariably things are going to get imported, not because of high labour costs in Australia, not because of tariffs, not because of the exchange rate – but because of economies of scale. You can’t beat economies of scale.”

Some of the quilts for sale in the high-end showrooms. Picture: Lachlan Bence.

Some of the quilts for sale in the high-end showrooms. Picture: Lachlan Bence.

“For example, Asia: if we make 10,000 and they make one million – you can’t beat it. People blame a whole variety of factors, but at the end of the day it’s economies of scale. You’re not gonna win.”

To that end, Mr Herszfeld realised that the mill needed to become a supplier more than a manufacturer. An episode of the ABC’s specialised country affairs program Landline led to an exponential increase of interest in and visitors to the mill, and those people wanted to buy goods.

Creswick Woollen Mills now sells a range of other Australian-made products through its stores across Victoria, as well as the products it makes, and a range of high-quality imported products as well.