In New Zealand, sheep were originally farmed mostly for wool.

Exporting a product used throughout the world provided much-needed cash for local farmers.

Wool was transported from farms to the nearest port or, from the early 1900s, the nearest railway, in 90-pound fadges (woolsacks) by packhorse. Larger bales were carried by horse and wagon or on the deck of a Whanganui River paddle steamer.

The New Zealand Spectator and Cooks Strait Guardian of March 1848 wrote, "Wool promises soon to become one of our staple exports".


The Sheep Act 1878 aimed to control the disease called scab by imposing penalties for the possession of infected sheep and restrictions on sheep movement and disposal.

By 1890, scab had been brought under control. Some farmers were inventive in their treatment for scab. In 1884, James Higgie of Fordell recorded his recipe:

60 lbs Sulphur
30 lbs Quick lime
60 Gals water

Boil and keep boiling for 10 minutes when a clear orange solution will appear.

Her Excellency's Knitting BookPhoto/ WRM Collection: 1966.83.4
Her Excellency's Knitting BookPhoto/ WRM Collection: 1966.83.4

Add this to 180 gals water make a bath heated to 100 degrees Fahr and bathe the sheep for at least one minute.

He also noted on 2 August 1884, "The lambs are still suffering from the effects of sulphur. I have lost 14 and think I shall lose about 12 more".

From around 1890 until his death in 1904, W T Owen manufactured Owen's Sheep Dip at Mākirikiri.

He sold gallon drums for £1 and five gallons for £4-10. One gallon of sheep dip made 400 gallons of the mixture.


In an oral history recording in 1993, Margery Varley who farmed in the Turakina Valley had this to say about dipping sheep: "You had to put each sheep in, especially old ewes, they got cunning, they know the smell of the dip and they can cling to the concrete."

Frank Stubbing ran a station at Karioi, midway between Waiouru and Ōhākune.

In 1897, the station ran 47,000 sheep. Stubbing had established a wool wash in 1882.

It cleaned wool from surrounding farms for almost 20 years.

This Fair Isle patterned vest was knitted in England by Mrs Gladys Turner, during World War II. Photo/ WRM Collection: 1997.51.1
This Fair Isle patterned vest was knitted in England by Mrs Gladys Turner, during World War II. Photo/ WRM Collection: 1997.51.1

Fleeces were washed to remove ticks, dirt and twigs in the cold water of the Tokiahura Stream that was diverted for the purpose. About 1200 bales of wool could be washed in a season.

Wool was a domestic commodity for clothing and bedding as well as an export money-earner.

Settlers from different parts of the world brought distinct knitting skills and styles with them.

Girls learned very early to sew and knit. While combing, carding, spinning and weaving or knitting locally produced wool was largely women's work, Scottish boys were often taught to knit alongside their sisters, as were some northern English men.

Knitting came into its own during both World Wars. Families at home knitted piles of socks, hats, gloves, vests, scarves and jumpers to post overseas with other comforts.

Knitting gave friends and relations at home a meaningful way to help servicemen - soldiers on active service were said to wear out a pair of socks every fortnight.

Lady Liverpool, wife of the Governor of New Zealand, set up a patriotic fund during World War I.

In March 1915, she challenged the people of New Zealand to knit two pairs of socks for every member of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.

Women knitted furiously at home while schoolboys and girls knitted in their classrooms. New Zealand's first locally published knitting book, Her Excellency's Knitting Book, contained patterns for socks, balaclavas and gloves.

Within six months, 30,000 pairs of socks had been made for the servicemen.

*Libby Sharpe is senior curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.