Lake Boga

I live in a city and cycle everywhere, so I’m not the world’s best driver. Visiting a farm in Winlaton required more driving in one day than I was comfortable with, so I decided to stay the night in neighbouring Lake Boga. Boy am I glad I did! My husband joined me at the last minute for a fun mini-cation in a part of Victoria we never imagined we’d visit.

Driving from Melbourne, Kerang presented the perfect lunch stop opportunity. Atkinson Park provided a large lake and shaded tables for our picnic lunch. The nearby playground entertained us with its flying fox and the library’s gallery space offered an exhibition of contemporary weaving.

After our farm visit, we drove over to Lake Boga caravan park, our rest stop for the night. The owner was relaxed and friendly, and the lush grass of the camping area inviting. We strolled over to the bottle shop for a bottle of wine, and sat by Lake Boga. We relaxed with books and wine glasses in hand all afternoon, bliss!

I’d remembered to bring my binoculars and checked out the pelicans on the lake in detail. It’s the first time I’ve seen a flock feeding together. They glided over the water in the same direction. In sync, they bowed their heads into the water and partially raised their wings. Having trailed their beaks for a short while, they lifted their heads again and continued to glide on. It was an amazing piece of choreography.

Lake Boga at sunset

Lake Boga at sunset, part of the Victorian Mid-Murray Storages.

We had dinner at the pub, then walked along the lake to get to the Lake Boga Observatory. Several visitors were peering into telescopes by the time we arrived. It was a friendly, casual affair. The two guides showed us some of their favourite features, and took on board audience requests. Mars and Saturn were visible while we were there. We checked out the jewel box and got introduced to Antares. Later on, we headed inside for a presentation which zoomed in on galaxies. It gave me a better appreciation of the depth of the universe. Pretty cool stuff.

We set our alarms for 4am as we crawled into the tent for bed that night. Obedient to the signal, we got up and lay on the shores of Lake Boga in our sleeping bags to watch a meteor shower overhead in skies much clearer than you ever get in Melbourne.

The biggest tourist draw card at Lake Boga is the Flying Boat museum. Lake Boga was the site of a secret repair facility in World War II. Flying boats served in the Indian and Pacific oceans and Asia. They were large and slow, but could travel incredible distances. How else would you get a plane from Singapore back to Lake Boga with only one refueling stop?!

The highlight of the museum is an authentic Catalina Flying Boat, set up as it would have been in WWII. Around it are displays of memorabilia. One story recorded a time when the bottom of a Catalina was bombed, injuring the pilots. With the wind whistling around them, one of the pilots made a disparaging comment about “this Japanese air-con”! They managed the long haul back from Asia to Lake Boga. But flying boats usually land on water, and this Catalina had a massive hole in its belly. The pilots angled the vessel so that the tail hit the water first and the nose came down just as they reached the lake shore. Incredible stuff.

The memorabilia also told human stories of the repair base. It must have had a massive impact on this quiet agricultural community. There were mens and womens quarters, and regular dances for entertainment.

Driving home, we noticed the sign for the Reedy Lakes wetlands and turned off to check them out. The Kerang lakes are the traditional lands of the Wadiwadi, Wembawemba and Barababaraba. There were two walks from the car park; the one around the lake was more intact than the bushland one. It was a beautiful short walk between sun drenched River Red Gums. The perfect end to a lovely holiday.

*This article was edited because I found extra photos and information from the trip, particularly about our visit to the Reedy Lakes wetlands.

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Fibreshed fibre: Cotton

“Doesn’t cotton use a lot of water?”

When I told friends I was visiting a local cotton farm, I was consistently asked this question. Environmental messaging about cotton has pervaded the community consciousness. I was curious to find out how concerned I should be about this information. This is my first attempt at the topic. As always, it is limited by what access to data sources I have, and my skill set in understanding it.

Cotton history

The original source of cotton could have been East Africa and the Americas. What does seem certain is we’ve been using cotton for a long time. 5000+ year old cotton fabric has been found in Egypt, the Indus Valley (modern day Pakistan) and Mexico. Knowledge of cotton spread along with some of the key stories from our history books. Alexander the Great’s troops switched from woollen tunics to cotton when they invaded India. Muslims in Spain introduced cotton to Europe in the 8th century. Cotton became a valued import from India until the 18th century. Then the industrial revolution in the UK shifted production to Europe. There were poor work conditions in British mills and slavery in North American fields.

Cotton is a relative of the hibiscus plant. Most cotton grown today are Americas varietals, particularly Gossypium hirsutum; upland cotton. Pima and Egyptian cotton fibres come from a South American variety, Gossypium barbadense. It has fine, soft, long-staple fibers but is harder to grow.

Native Australian 'cotton'

Native Australian ‘cotton’ Kapok/Goonjan/Wanggu (Cochlospermum fraseri) in the Northern Territory. The fruits split to release numerous seeds on silky parachutes of a cotton-like fibre.

Cotton in Australia

In Australia, cotton came out with the first fleet. There are some native ‘cottons’, but they are not grown commercially. It puttered along as a minor crop in Queensland from the 1850s. This was unirrigated, marginal yield and poor quality. There are hints of an ugly story here too. Over 60,000 South Pacific Islanders were brought to develop the cotton and sugarcane crops. Was blackbirding involved?

The modern, irrigated crop we know was an innovation of the 1960s. Cotton was the first genetically modified (GM) crop to be grown in Australia in 1996. Today 98% of the Australian cotton crop is GM. CSIRO partners with Monsanto to breed cotton varieties suited to different regions in Australia. One of those varieties is Bollguard II. It contains two genes from the soil bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Those genes produce proteins in the cotton leaves, killing caterpillars of cotton’s biggest pest. Because of this, Australian cotton has the highest yields in the world. I have been unable to locate any organic cotton growers in Australia. It would appear that growing organic in Australia is commercially unfeasible.

The cotton growing season in Australia falls between September and April. Victoria’s season is shorter and finishes in late April or early May. The plant grows to about 1 metre tall. Lovely cream and crimson pink flowers give way to bolls. The bolls split to reveal cotton fibre inside.

Cotton bolls at different stages of opening

Cotton bolls at different stages of opening

During the growing season, fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides are applied to the crop. Once the cotton bolls open, defoliant is used before harvesting. This list breaks down the actions at each stage in more detail. This video shows the different stages (and machinery used) for cotton growing. It focuses on New South Wales, so some of the techniques are different to Victoria. Australian farms average 10 bales of cotton per hectare planted. Each bale contains 2,500kg of cotton lint, seed and vegetable matter.

Cotton’s environmental impact

Yes. Cotton uses a lot of water. About 7 megalitres per hectare; which grows at least 10 bales of cotton in Australia. A farmer told me that 40% of a bale is lint (cotton fibre), so that gives us about 10,000kg of cotton per hectare. Australia’s crop is considered the most water efficient in the world. So if water efficiency is important to you, Australian cotton is worth considering.

But should we be growing cotton in the first place? Cotton is a large water user when compared to other clothing fibres. So cotton as a clothing fibre doesn’t rate well for water concious consumers. But when compared to other crops grown where cotton is farmed? The story changes. Cotton uses less water than lucerne and tomatoes: popular crops in Victoria’s irrigated areas. Cotton is also a lucrative crop. From a farming perspective then, cotton makes the most out of available water allocations.

Speaking of irrigation, I wondered about the environmental impact of having an irrigation system. I spoke to Juliet Le Feuvre from Environment Victoria. I asked her if it’s possible to irrigate in an environmentally responsible way. She thinks it is, although we’re struggling to balance the competing needs well. She pointed me to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan for information on our current approach.

Lake Boga at sunset

Lake Boga at sunset, part of the Victorian Mid-Murray Storages.

Chemicals on cotton involve insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and defoliants. I’ll refer to these generally as pesticides. Insecticides are applied to stop insects destroying crop plants. Australia’s use of GM cotton varieties has reduced insecticide use by 85%. In 2010-11, that meant 0.54 kg of insecticide active constituent per hectare. Fungicides kill or prevent the growth of fungi and their spores. The only fungicides registered for use on cotton in Australia are for seed treatments.

Herbicides kill unwanted plants. Of all the herbicides used on cotton, more than 80% is glyphosate (Roundup). In 2013, herbicide useage was just under 3kg of active ingredient per hectare. Seven glyphosate resistant weed species occur widely in cotton farming systems. It’s interesting to note that irrigated systems provide higher weed control than dryland systems. Defoliants cause plant leaves to die back and drop off. This reduces the leaf and vegetable matter in the cotton when harvested. Defoliants could use chemicals that also have insecticide or herbicide qualities. Defoliation makes processing easier and maintains the quality of the fibre.

There are several concerns about chemicals:

  • negative effects on beneficial insects
  • weed resistance to herbicides
  • chemical run off and spray drift (when pesticides move away from their intended target).

Beneficial insects are being better supported by Integrated Pest Management Systems. This uses a broad range of strategies to control problem pests including targeted insecticides. Integrated Weed Management is helping control weed resistance. The cotton industry has significantly reduced the impact of pesticides on the environment. Tools like MyBMP will help the industry to keep doing so. But pesticides do continue to have an impact on waterways and vegetation.

Kilter Rural's cotton field

Defoliated cotton ready for harvest

Cotton on

Cotton is hard wearing and durable, but soft on the skin and hypoallergenic. It’s spun as a combed or mercerised yarn. Combed cotton is brushed, matte and low-twist. Mercerised cotton is treated with sodium hydroxide for a shiny finish and high twist. The fibre provides little insulation, high breathability and absorbs water. This is why its such a comfortable fabric in warm weather.

Most cotton is white; it can have shades of yellow depending on the variety grown. There are also coloured varieties of cotton in red, green and brown! Cotton fibres vary in length from 1 to 6.5 cm, with a diameter of 11-22 microns. Cotton fabric has good drape and high pilling resistance. The smoothness of the fibre defines stitches, good for showing off fancy stitch work. Mercerised cotton has superb colour retention.

Cotton is inexpensive, and can be washed and dried on regular machine cycles. It can help to lie the garment flat to dry, to avoid stretching it out of shape.

Cotton conundrums

Some high twist cottons, particularly mercerised ones, can knit on an angle. Cotton yarn is prone to splitting during knitting. Cotton’s good stitch definition shows up all your mistakes. That’s a concern for inexperienced knitters like myself!

Cotton fabric is inelastic, so it is prone to stretching and sagging. Blended yarns improve this tendency. Cottons dyed in dark colours tend to bleed. Adding vinegar to washes reduces colour running. The colours tend to fade in brushed cottons, they can also be prone to pilling. Be careful around flames, because cotton is highly flammable.

There is no easily sourced organic cotton available in Australia.

Where to see cotton locally

Kilter Rural – Lake Boga, Mallee region


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Two lambs sleepingSo it turns out that I’ve taken too much on again. I’ve been cutting back and resting, but this month is still really busy and I haven’t found my blogging mojo again yet. I’m chipping away at post about cotton and I’ll share that once its done. In the meantime, I’m sorry to have left you hanging, and I hope you’ll be patient with me as I get back up to speed.

Thank you so much for reading.

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An Oma stitch block cowl

Stitch block cowl

My kind neighbour deigned to model my latest creation for this blog 🙂

Check it out, I finished something! My knit projects move at snail’s pace because I’m still relatively new to the craft. Also, I only knit once or twice a week during my lunch break. Finishing something is rare and precious enough. This beautiful cowl from Purl Bee Soho stole my heart as soon as I saw the pattern. It feels especially exciting to have made one myself.

The cowl belongs to a friend of mine. I made it from her late Oma’s (grandmother’s) yarn stash. My friend picked out the colour scheme she preferred. I matched the yarn weights as best I could to the original pattern. Our cowl didn’t end up with the same three dimensional punch of the original. Our version has more sheen though, thanks to the soft taupe base colour we used.

Detail of the three stitch block patterns used in this cowl scarf

Detail of the three stitch block patterns used in this cowl scarf

This was the perfect pattern for my intermediate-beginner level. I learnt a few new stitches and three different patterns. It’s the first piece I’ve grafted together. The repetition of each pattern section helped me finesse my rhythm and technique. Luckily for me, the thickness of the pattern hides a multitude of mistakes. The garment quality improved as it progressed!

By the time I completed this project, my friend had given birth to her first child. This cowl will brighten the coming winter days and keep her warm. Infinitely looping from grandmother, to mother and the new life she’s caring for.

Stitch block cowl

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Fibreshed farmer: Kilter rural

I never expected to find cotton in Victoria. And yet there it was, a news article about the first cotton farm in the state for over 30 years. It is a single crop, but it has been successful. Farmers in the area are paying attention. The cotton is being grown by Kilter Rural, a specialist agricultural asset manager. In other words, investors buy the land, Kilter run the farm. I got in contact with Michael Neville, manager of agriculture at Kilter Rural to find out more. Michael brought me up to speed, revealing facts and statistics so quickly I could barely keep up with my notes.

Kilter are growing Bollgard II cotton, which is genetically modified (it’s the 71BRF variety). The plant is grown to hip height, then prompted to flower. A boll develops from each flower. Within the boll is the burr, which is the cotton fibre and seed. The plants are defoliated before picking so that the harvested cotton contains much less twigs and leaves. The cotton is harvested once the bolls have fully opened.

The harvested cotton is rolled into bales that weigh 2,500kg each. They’re so heavy a B-double truck can fit only 13 bales. Michael told me that Kilter need a 10 bale to the hectare harvest to break even. That’s a lot of cotton. The bales are driven to a cotton gin run by Auscott in Hay, NSW for the next stage of processing. Currently all ginned Australian cotton is sent overseas for spinning. There are no suitable yarn mills in Australia. Michael has some plans on how to change that, but they’re still in the beginning stages so we won’t see the results for a long time yet.

Kilter Rural's cotton field

Kilter Rural’s cotton field

The cotton is irrigated with a subsurface drip. 2016 was the third year that Kilter have grown cotton in Victoria. Their water usage over the three years tells the story of how they’re tweaking what they do. They used 10 mega litres of water per hectare in 2014, and reduced that by one mega litre in 2015. In 2016 they got it down again to 7 or 8 megalitres. The national average is 7.8 mega litres per hectare. Kilter Rural have been able to significantly reduce their insecticide use because of the variety of cotton they’re growing. The biggest change this variety of cotton brings is a significant reduction in insecticide use. The range of herbicides needed has also dropped.

Michael was happy for me to visit the farm, so we drove all the way up to Winlaton, near Swan Hill. Ron Opie, the farm manager showed us around. We arrived a few days before harvest. I’ve seen photos of cotton fields before, but seeing the real thing was different. The cotton was super white and practically falling out of its casing cotton. The plants were shorter, and there was more cotton per plant than I imagined. Kilter Rural grew 240 hectares of cotton this year, and aim to get to 500 hectares eventually.

Ron took us to the edge of the field, where some plants had germinated outside of the irrigation lines. Their growth had been slower, so he could show us a boll in the stages between closed and fully open. If the bolls are slow to open in the field, they use a horizontal bar to tap the cotton buds. This rap is enough to prompt them to release their fruit. At harvest time, a tractor will work 7 furrows at a time. It’s hooked up to GPS so the irrigation lines are unaffected.

Cotton bolls at different stages of opening

Cotton bolls at different stages of opening

Cotton doesn’t give Ron many problems, in fact his biggest issue is the irrigation lines. A worm likes to chew through the plastic tubes. Ron’s team have to plug the holes quickly to stop water loss! Kilter Rural rotate crops. There were corn husks on the ground from the previous crop when we visited. They have found that tomatoes grow well after a cotton crop. Ron explained how just before sowing, he’ll allow weeds to germinate. These are then turned into the soil, which gives the crop an advantage on weedy competition.

Kilter Rural participate in the Better Cotton Initiative. They value sustainability in their business and manage over 70 habitat hectares of remnant vegetation in the Victorian Riverina and Murray Fans bioregions. This covers grasslands, woodlands and scattered large old trees. Kilter Rural have also been involved in composting and carbon farming research projects.

This is the longest journey I’ve made visit a farm for this Fibreshed project, but it was well worth the trip. Plant farmers seem to be a different breed to animal farmers, much more laconic and business-like. It was great to meet face-to-face and better understand the work that’s occurring here.

Cotton plant in field, ready to harvest

Cotton, ready for harvest

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Mend it May

My mending pile is slowly engulfing the top shelf of my wardrobe. There are outposts in a corner of the study and on the coffee table in our living room. Mending is important to me, but I struggle to find the time to do it. In addition, I don’t often have the skills or knowhow to tackle mends efficiently and with confidence. Technically I’m having a ‘mend-it year’. Mend it May came along and reinspired me.

Mend it May was initiated by Jen Gale, as a celebration of all things repair. Jen wrote mending posts on her blog, ran a hashtag across Instagram and Twitter, and set up a group on Facebook. I came in late to this online mending party, so participating didn’t result in a large pile of finished mends for me. What it has been great for is the conversations on mending and see what everyone around the world is up to.

Mend 25 for #menditmay was a quick fix by the hubby of my charger cord.

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Looking at and reading about other’s repairs opened my eyes to different repair approaches. One person reinforced their charger cord with non-conductive fabric in their scraps pile. It’s so obvious, yet it never would have occurred to me! Someone else fixed the blade of their cheese slicer because they thought to google if replacement blades were available. I have a better idea of how to swiss darn thanks to a mender who blogged their own learnings.

I loved the resources that people posted up as well. Thanks to threads magazine, I’m now aware I can fix the droopy lining of my coat. It seems ridiculously obvious in retrospect! I’ve got a huge pile of plastics and fabric I’d like to upcycle, so a weaving page will be great inspiration. But most exciting of all, I was introduced to FixnZip: possibly the answer to the broken zip on my wallet!

Visible mend #menditmay stitched diagonally and with a bias cut patch as these jeans are stretchy. Trying to come up with #fivefactsaboutme as the inspiring @hannaontheroad asked a while back. Thank you! Let's see.. 1.Like Hanna Lisa, I too am on some version of #thejourney . As I figure out where I'm heading next, I blog about what I'm passionate about: slow fashion, handmade, and the problems of a fashion industry gone wild. 2. I love writing, but I'm still terrified of sticking my head out. 🙈 3. To soothe my nerves, therefore, I drink lots of tea. 4. Probably due to the fact that I'm half English and it's ingrained in me that a good cup of tea solves most things. 5. Inspired by @makeandmendlife I'm embracing mending this May, and most likely as a philosophy of life hereafter. It's surprisingly therapeutic. 🌾@kasia_and @sdurietz @claraundco would you lovely ladies like to share five facts about yourselves? No pressure, of course! 😊

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So what did I mend? Well, at the start of the month at Fix It, we cut off the broken clasp of a brooch, filed it back and glued on a new pin. I also glued together two pairs of sunglasses. This was exciting until I realised that in conveying them home I’ve managed to smear glue on the frames…one step forward, two steps back 😦

Most importantly, I attacked the frayed cuffs of my hoody. I’m tightly blanket stitching all around the cuff to essentially replace the fabric. My stitching is slowly getting better and I benefited from advice on the Mend It May Facebook group on why the ends are curling (it’s because the fabric is so old, it’s stretched). I haven’t finished this mend, but it’s definitely a long way closer 🙂

Blanket stitching reinforcing the cuff of a hoody.

Blanket stitching to reinforce the cuff of my hoody.

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Fibreshed fibre: Angora

I’ll admit I knew nothing about angora before I started this Fibreshed project. I knew it was an animal fibre, but I was confused which animal it came from. I had no idea how it was produced, and learning more has been a pleasant surprise.

The backstory on rabbit fibre

Angora is the hair of special breeds of domestic rabbit. Angoras originated from Turkey. This is also where Angora goats originated from, which helps explain why the term ‘angora’ confused me for so long! It is considered a noble fibre, because it was popular amongst French royalty from the mid-eighteenth century.

There are several key angora breeds kept for fibre: English, French, Giant and Satin. Additional breeds like the German angora are also popular. An English angora produces about 600 to 800 grams of fibre per year.

A smoke grey English angora.

A smoke grey English angora. Image credit: Charly McCafferty

Angoras are brushed daily, some of their fibre is collected then. This also helps maintain the rabbit’s coat, which can mat or felt. Fibre is also collected by shearing or plucking, usually every three to four months. Harvesting doesn’t have to harm the rabbits, they lie on a table as their coat is clipped or plucked. Its interesting to note that the industry term ‘plucking’ refers to pulling out loose hairs, which the rabbits shed naturally. There have been reports of inhumane harvesting, so it is worth investigating the source (and husbandry of) of angora fibres.

The environmental impact of farming rabbits is low. It is usually small scale and doesn’t use a lot of energy. Depending on how it is harvested, angora fibre doesn’t need processing prior to spinning.

What makes the fibre so noble?

Angora fibre is fluffy, light, soft and very warm. It has high insulation and moisture wicking properties. Its high loft breathes well and is naturally water resistant.

Angora rabbits in a day enclosure.

Angora rabbits in a day enclosure. Image credit: Charly McCafferty

The colours of angora bunnies range from pure white to grey, brown, gold, lilac and silver. It is one of the finest natural fibres, ranging from 9 to 12 micron. The staple length is relatively short; around 5-8cm, giving it a tendency to pill. Angora has low draping qualities and is inelastic, making it prone to warping.

It is often blended with other fibres and will make anything it’s blended with super soft. Only 5 to 10% is needed to make any fibre, including medium to course fibres, next to skin soft. Angora adds a cloud-like appearance and a silky feel to fabrics. It is great for felting, with a shrinkage of less than 10%.

Bunny bummers

Angora is resistant to odors but has low stain resistance. It is not an allergen, but its soft fluffy fibres might irritate the nose. It can be slippery to knit with, so use wooden needles. Angora is strong and durable, but you should only wash it when it is dirty. Too much cleaning can break down the yarn. The labour intensiveness of this fibre makes it an expensive luxury yarn.

Angora rabbit and dog lying together

Jazz the bunny dog with Gandalf at IxCHel farm. Image credit: Charly McCafferty

Where to see angora locally

IxCHel – Yarra Valley (n.b. this farm has strict biosecurity measures to protect their rabbits from disease so it is not open for visits)

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