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‘We love it’: Arthur River and Wagin spinners using local wool to produce garments in local heritage precinct

Headshot of Shannon Verhagen
The Wild Woolery spinners and knitters Jen Abel and Maree O'Connell at their Arthur River craft shop.
Camera IconThe Wild Woolery spinners and knitters Jen Abel and Maree O'Connell at their Arthur River craft shop. Credit: Shannon Verhagen/Countryman/Countryman

In the heart of Arthur River, nestled amongst a collection of heritage listed buildings, two women are spinning their own kind of magic in the Wheatbelt.

A drive along Albany Highway any time of the year provides insight into the agricultural industry at each community’s core, with green and gold crops and paddocks home to sheep and cattle lining the roadside.

Midway from Perth to the coast, Arthur River’s Maree O’Connell and Wagin’s Jen Abel are providing another insight, showcasing what can be done with the very fibre grown in the region at their ‘Wild Woolery’.

Perched out the front of the old post office — built in 1880 and recently restored — with their wheels, they spin local Merino fleece into yarn, before knitting or crocheting it into much-loved garments.

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“I love it,” Ms O’Connell said. “I’m 72 and I started when I was 28.”

“I started because in those days, there wasn’t a lot of variety as far as wool went.

“I really liked coloured fleece (which there was not a lot of) in those days.

“When you knit it, it creates its own pattern, you don’t need to add a cable (stitch)... and it just looks awesome.”

It all began three years ago, when Ms O’Connell saw the need to bring more people into the tiny town, which today has a population of little more than 100.

“I asked the roadhouse if they would they be interested in me coming in and doing some spinning when the (tour) bus comes in,” she said.

Spying the group of buildings over the road, she enquired with the Shire if she could use them instead, saving her having to pack up every day.

The rest is history.

The creative spinner has now established a local craft shop in the brick building which was once kitchen to the Mount Pleasant Inn, packed to the rafters with handcrafted fibres, yarns and garments.

Ms Abel jumped on board a year ago, after moving to Wagin and wanting to learn to spin herself.

“It all started when my husband bought me my four alpacas and I didn’t want to waste their fibre,” she said.

Ms O’Connell taught her the art of spinning, and Ms Abel swiftly became part of the furniture.

“It’s my anniversary this month of 12 months of spinning,” she said. “Now I’ve started knitting as well as crocheting.”

Together, they spin, make, mix and dye their own fibres, which they sell or knit into garments, and are slowly teaching more and more ladies the art of spinning.

Leaning into the historical side of things, the pair attend local agricultural shows and the monthly Katanning markets donning traditional black and white gowns and bonnets to get people’s attention.

“It’s marvellous the amount of people we’ve got coming to do a spin,” Ms O’Connell said.

“We’ve got five or six ladies from around the place that come to do one on one spinning classes.”

Their students are from a range of locations and age demographics, from Perth to the Wheatbelt, and women in their 30’s to one woman who wanted to learn the art at 83.

If people stop in for a browse, the ladies are also more than happy to give them a tour of the precinct.

“We couldn’t be in a nicer building,” Ms Abel said.

“It’s got a lot of history — there’s still the old well and there’s all the fruit trees in the orchard still.”

“I just wish the Inn was still there,” Ms O’Connell added. “Imagine all of the people that would have stopped in to have a drink and pop in.”

Their hand-made garments have been purchased by interstate and even international customers, but there are also orders made closer to home, with the pair sourcing as much wool locally as they can.

They have made jumpers for farmers from their own sheep’s fleeces, and were gifted five fleeces by a local woolgrower at the Katanning Agricultural Show last month.

Ms O’Connell is also currently working on a sentimental piece, spinning fleeces from a local farm to create something for the farmer’s daughter’s 21st birthday.

The Wild Woolery is open Thursday to Saturday from 10am-2pm, or by appointment.

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