Past and present combine at Waverley Mills iconic woollen factory

Stepping into Waverley Woollen Mills is like stepping back in time. 

Tucked away behind Launceston on the banks of Distillery Creek, the mill’s 143-year history has reflected much of the city’s own manufacturing legacy.

But unlike many other iconic Tasmanian businesses, the mill has held on, despite several near-closures over the past 20 years.

Staff numbers have risen and fallen, reflecting market demands and the expertise needed to operate the machinery required to create finished products from raw Tasmanian wool.

The mill was founded in 1874 by Scotsman Peter Bulman, who without realising it was helping foster a textile manufacturing industry that would dominate Launceston for decades.

Historian Julian Burgess wrote a book on Waverley Mills, The Outcome of Enterprise, and said the mill was a highly important part of Launceston’s history.

Mr Burgess said it was the longest-running mill in Australia, the old buildings holding memories of major technological advances through the years.

“It was a pioneer in the use of hydroelectricity for manufacturing in Tasmania, and that happened in 1889,” he said – five years before Duck Reach brought power to Launceston. 

“The idea of using hydroelectricity to power an industry, that was the seeds of hydroelectricity more widely … being accepted in Tasmania.”

Waverley was also a pioneer in creating electric blankets – an industry it led before the advent of the doona in the 1970s.

Since then the mill has continued to produce fine, high-quality blankets and shawls, throws and more from Tasmanian wool, but its newest owners are seeking to take the brand in a new and innovative direction while still paying homage to the brand.

A crowdfunding campaign with a target of $90,000 has already raised nearly $40,000 in an effort to “future-proof” the mill toward a new direction of bespoke and on-demand pieces.

The mill’s owners are hoping to capitalise on both the experience of the mill’s employees and the significance of the factory’s ability to create a product from start to finish on-site.

The buildings themselves are full of memory, from the first buildings constructed in the late 1800s through to the big tin sheds added on over the years, making room for more workers and more machines as needed.

Mr Burgess said the mill, which existed long before the suburb that inherited the name Waverley, was one of the few remaining Launceston businesses still operating from its original site.

“When you go up there now … the inside of it looks like it hasn’t changed since 1874,” he said.

Waverley Mill’s chief executive, Andrew Cuccurullo, can see the potential in the history and the brand.

Rather than stripping the old buildings of their heritage and removing the infrastructure, Mr Cuccurullo and his fellow consortium members are keen to capitalise on the “phenomenal resources” on the property.

“We’re on a fairly good path, in that we’ve got a new range of product going, we’re back in [David Jones], we’re back into the top end [fashion stores],” Mr Cuccurullo said.

“One of the issues I’ve found in the last year and a half is … there’s still a lot of underlying issues with the mill, that we’ve slowly started to fix up.”

The $90,000 target would help fix some of the most glaring problems with the old buildings – holes in ceilings, broken windows, abandoned infrastructure needing to be repaired or removed.

It would also give the business itself a boost, a three-month buffer of raw wool for designers and mill workers to craft into their artisan shawls, blankets and throws.

Walking through the mill, Mr Cuccurullo pointed out the opportunities he and his fellow investors identified – the infrastructure, but also loyalty to the brand, and the chance to innovate further with new ideas, new designs.

Mr Cuccurullo hopes to create stronger links with the community, through opening up the mill to local artists and designers, creating links to education, and redeveloping a once-thriving tourism market.

At the front of the property is the first tin shed, in which rests the 1950s-era carding machine and the 1990s-era battening and spinning machines – big green monsters clattering through their daily routine.

In this shed only two people are needed to operate the machines on an average shift. On a steady day the mill can work through 300 kilograms of yarn per day.

From the carding shed the wool continues through, now spun into fine lots, to the chemical wizardry of the dyeing sheds.

A dye lot can take many tries to get the right colour, hand-mixed by the chief dyer in an office of test bottles and warning signs.

Through the long brick buildings, the wool’s journey moves to the looms, clattering, buzzing machines filling warp and weft in swift minutes, creating the blankets and scarves so key to the Waverley brand.

Waverley employees are long-term workers of 10, 13, 20 or nearly 25 years. Their knowledge is hard to replace and their experience invaluable, covering all the machines from start to finish.

They have seen fellow workers come and go, through good and bad, and are an intrinsic part of the mill’s future.

“It thrills me, but also scares me – that knowledge base, we can’t lose it,” Mr Cuccurullo said.