A glittering prize of platinum and gold signifies the enduring bonds between Italy’s most exclusive fashion houses and the merino sheep farmers of Tasmania, and the enduring international esteem of Tasmania’s finest wool.
The Ermenegildo Zegna Perpetual Trophy — awarded to the champion superfine merino fleece the at the annual Midland Agricultural Association Show — was created in 1963 as a sign from the Zegna family that they deemed Tasmania’s best wool ideal for their fabulously expensive men’s suits.
Equally, it showed the Zegnas were keen to forge a lasting relationship, so that they remained foremost in the minds of the leading Tasmanian wool producers.
As a perpetual prize, the Zegna trophy now sits inside a locked glass cabinet within the Tasmanian Wool Centre at Ross, though on 13 occasions during annual show judging day it has been placed in the hands of Jim McEwan, the most decorated of the midlands wool producers.
At 81, Jim draws a modest delight from the accolades that come with winning the Zegna trophy, which he took out again in 2006. However, he’s been running sheep long enough to have seen as many tragedies on the land as triumphs.
“Those Zegna suits might be glamorous, but there isn’t any glamour in this game,” he says sagely, stepping from the cab of a truck in his customary work garb of flannel shirt, battered woolen jumper and scuffed boots. Even now, there’s still a solid day’s work to be done by the veteran farmer.
By the time Tasmanian artist Stephen Walker was commissioned to create the perpetual trophy at a cost of £2240, Zegna was already a committed buyer of the highest quality wool from Tasmania’s midlands region. The Italians had become familiar with the superior Tasmanian fleeces through English merchants, and creating the trophy ensured that competition between the growers intensified, so that the quality would remain consistently high.
The secret, Jim says, is in the nature of Trefusis, the rambling 7000 hectare property on which he runs a flock of 31,000 sheep. It’s wild country, running through undulating patches of native grassland, open plains and craggy woodland beside the Macquarie River; there are also sections of controlled paddocks with lush green feed on which ewes rear their lambs before being returned to the open grazing land.
This property was the first in the region to experiment with aerial seeding in the 1940s; Jim loaded an old Tiger Moth with sacks of seed and scattered them from the air over sheer hillsides to ensure plentiful feed in the rugged terrain. Mercifully, despite its wild nature, the region is free of thorn bushes and harsh scrub that would tear at the sheep’s fleeces. This is why the midlands Saxon merino fleeces are among the cleanest in the world — and are thus coveted by the world’s leading woolen mills for their premium garments.
Jim looks with an affectionate eye over his sprawling property, which has been in the family since 1922. He has run Trefusis since he was 17, called back from his schooling at Scotch College in Launceston, in northern Tasmania, after the sudden death of his father.
These were lean times; wool prices were low, rabbits running in plague proportions, the land was dry and feed was scarce. So when the accolades for superior fleece quality started arriving during the mid-1960s, and international prices for wool began to rise in the same era, these were especially sweet tonics. “It was certainly time for things to turn around,” Jim comments dryly.
When the McEwans won their first midlands show trophy in 1966, the Zegna family invited Jim and his wife to Venice for two weeks. He made good friends with the late company founder, Ermenegildo. “They were very nice, humble people,” Jim recalls.
The farmer from the Ross district in wild Tasmania was taken in first class comfort to see the Zegna company mills and the exclusive garments they produced; Jim, however, would have liked to meet more of the Italian wool classers and heard trade stories about their various trials with fleeces.
The Italians have also visited the Trefusis property many times and remain good buyers of the McEwan’s premium fleece. Angelo Zegna, the president of Ermenegildo Zegna Group (a company earning $63 million annually and hoping to break the billion dollar mark by 2010), and his nephew Paolo Zegna, the current CEO of and president of their textile division, are sporadic visitors.
They go into the shearing sheds, and are always polite, though Jim would like it if they were perhaps more critical of what they saw. “They visit the sheds but don’t tell us what they’d like to see happening,” Jim says. “So we just keep doing what we’ve been doing for years. Still, I suppose that if they didn’t like something, they’d tell us soon enough.”
While the long run of trophy triumphs has put the McEwan’s property onto the world stage — and attracted the interest of more international buyers, beyond the Zegna corporation — such fame does little to elevate the price of the fleeces in the total Trefusis wool clip of about 500 bales each year. The world wool market is currently static, well down from its 1988 peaks that saw a world record price of $320 a kilogram paid at Tasmania’s Campbell Town wool auctions by Japanese textile mill Fujii Keori Ltd of Osaka.
However, the fame of Zegna trophy wins has put a hefty price on McEwan’s rams. Each is worth at least $1000, with the top rams fetching as much as $4000. Buyers come from New South Wales and New Zealand, though the Kiwis are now more inclined to buy ram semen rather than bear the heavy cost of freighting a live animal across the Tasman Sea.
These rams are descendants from the original Saxon merino flock that came to Tasmania aboard the Clansman in 1829. These were individually selected by Scottish gentlewoman Eliza Forlong, who walked through Saxony (modern Germany) searching for merino sheep capable of providing the best possible fleeces in her intended new home of Australia, then she herded them to Hamburg to await shipping.
Eliza trusted the initial flock in the care of her 16-year-old son William, while she continued to search for more of the esteemed Saxon merino sheep. The initial flock was actually bound for New South Wales, but when the Clansman docked for supplies at Hobart, a canny Governor, George Arthur, convinced the young William to accept a large land grant near the new garrison town of Campbell Town.
Eighteen months later Eliza arrived with her husband John, son Andrew and more sheep, but soon grew upset that they could not obtain more land, clashed repeatedly with government officials and eventually moved across Bass Strait to the Port Phillip district in Victoria during 1838, selling 4000 merinos to the Taylor family of the renowned Winton stud. This became the basis of the district’s huge Saxon merino flock.
As the historical home of superfine merino wool in Tasmania, Campbell Town became the original focus for wool commerce, and staged Tasmania’s first wool judging show in 1839. The Midland Agricultural Association Show is still held in Campbell Town, proudly referred to as the longest continually running agricultural show in the British Commonwealth. And this is why it sticks in their craw that the Zenga trophy keeps going to sheep properties at Ross.
“Yeah, they get a bit prickly about that,” says Jim McEwan, allowing himself a dry half-smile. “That why there’s always a bit of added fire in the football matches between the towns.”
Tensions come to a head between the midlands towns on show judging day in June each year. The judges award fleece quality out of 100 points; they sift through about 100 superfine skirted merino fleeces to find a winner.
So that laymen can begin to appreciate the differences between different fleeces, an interactive display is made available to more than 75,000 visitors each year that file through the Tasmanian Wool Centre in Ross — a bicentennial project opened in 1988 with the help of all the district’s major wool producers.
Among the displays of winners’ ribbons and shearing memorabilia are samples of different wool types and grades, so that you can squeeze and sense the slightly greasy lanolin feel of a raw fleece.
You can see the different types of wool from different breeds — English Leicester, Lincoln, Suffolk, Poll Dorset, Cheviot, fine black, Saxon merino. And nuzzled close to the stately Zegna trophy is a wool bale with Trefusis stenciled across its side.
Some locals joke that the stencil should be inked across the side of the trophy, but Jim McEwan would never be so bold to make such a claim. “The trophy’s nice, but really it’s the district that benefits from all this,” he says, casting a glance out across his property to the green horizon. “And so it deserves to.”
“Grazing Merinos” Produce: Stuff I Make
“Ermenegildo” My Executive Life
“Ewes and Lambs” Tasmanian Wool
“Tasmanian Wool Centre” igougo.com
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