Thursday, May 19, 2022

In a class of his own

Bruce Abbott has enjoyed a wide-ranging career in the wool industry, culminating in being made a life member of the New Zealand Wool Classers’ Association.

Bruce Abbott has enjoyed a wide-ranging career in the wool industry, culminating in being made a life member of the New Zealand Wool Classers’ Association. Neal Wallace discovers his passion for wool burns as bright as ever.

Advice given to Bruce Abbott when he returned to work after a Massey University wool classing course in the mid-1960s resonated throughout his career.

A senior staff member at the National Mortgage wool department in Dunedin reminded him that the most important aspect of wool preparation was colour, which he would be learn while on the job.

Abbott’s 55-plus year career has taken him from wool sheds to wool scours, including more than 30 years classing fine wool on Otago and Southland farms.

He has seen the highs and lows of wool farming – the micron madness of the 1990s when farmers were racing to produce ever-finer Merino fleece, to the virtual collapse of the crossbred wool industry as consumers forgot the fibre’s merits.

Despite that, Abbott who is semi-retired and living in Mosgiel, remains confident and upbeat about the industry and is still actively doing his bit to spark a recovery.

He effectively stumbled into the industry when he left Otago Boys’ High School in 1964.

His brother in law was a private wool buyer in Waimate and Abbott had enjoyed travelling to farms and working with wool.

It seemed an interesting career and he secured a role in the Dunedin wool department of the National Mortgage stock firm.

Part of his training involved studying for a Diploma in Wool and Wool Classing at Massey from 1965-66.

After five years at National Mortgage, he was offered a wool sorter’s role at the Water Taylors scour at Timaru, which began more than a decade working and later managing scours.

He estimates there were 35 scours, albeit small, dotted around the country in those days but notes there were also about 70 million sheep.

There are now three.

There were also eight wool brokers operating in Dunedin alone.

“It’s not a skill you learn from textbooks, it’s about the feel and the colour. When I class I am always looking at the colour.”

Bruce Abbott
Wool classer

An opportunity to work for the NZ Wool Testing Authority (NZWTA) eventuated,and together with wife Patricia they moved to Wellington, but it was only a year before they decided to return south.

They were enroute without a job when the NZWTA offered him a regional manager’s role in Dunedin, which he accepted.

For the next seven years he managed the collection, sampling and despatching of wool results.

During that time the two largest Dunedin wool brokers, Wrightson and Dalgety, decided they would micron test all wool, a significant move that spread nationally and required an expansion of testing services.

An impromptu meeting in the street resulted in a complete career change.

Bruce and Pat were offered the role of managing the YMCA’s Dunedin accommodation facility, which they did for seven years.

A year after making that change, Abbott was invited to class the Nokomai Station halfbred and Merino clips, which he did while they still managed the accommodation business.

Eventually Abbott worked with Alexandra shearing contractor Peter Lyons, which grew his classing run to eight sheds mostly in Otago.

For about 100 days from late July to early December he classed up to 100,000 fleeces, his A1457 stencil appeared on clips from Walter Peak, Cecil Peak, Halfway Bay, Motatapu, Wainui, Horseshoe, Auripo and the Selbie farm.

He has cut back to three sheds now, but classing reinvigorated his passion for wool.

“It’s not a skill you learn from textbooks, it’s about the feel and the colour. When I class I am always looking at the colour.”

His skill and judgement determines a farmer’s income.

A highlight was helping the Selbie family one year receive $265/kg at auction for a bale of 13 micron Merino wool.

Such is the fickle nature of the industry, the next year the equivalent bale sold for $20/kg.

Abbott says the most important person in the shed is the presser, the gofer between shearers, shed hands and the farmer who is responsible for penning up, tidiness and branding and tracking each bale.

“If you have a good presser, everything flows.”

As he stepped back from classing Abbott became involved in the NZ Woolclassers’ Association, acting as it executive officer for seven years.

In that time he improved communication, introduced field days, linked the association to other wool groups and grew membership by introducing an associate role.

Another passion is education and he has helped introduce wool training courses through the Southern Institute of Technology that have grown from less than five people a course to 58 this year.

Abbott sees horticulture providing a solution to wool’s ills.

Avocado and kiwifruit sectors were in dire situations, he says, until the two industries started working together.

Abbott says that is what wool has to do.

“We’re not a big industry and we have previously not worked together.”

But with consumers moving away from synthetic materials, Abbott says wool’s time has come provided the industry works together to promote quality fibre.

Farmers have a role ensuring quality is high and there is not a repeat of the recent situation where UK farmers received more for their wool than NZ.

“Crossbred wool preparation has gone out the door and we have got to get it back and we can only achieve that with properly trained people in the shed.”

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