Most people are oblivious to the small York business, Australian Fibre Testing, which has been working away quietly helping Australian sheep breeders improve their flocks for the past 23 years.

Business owner, Lorraine Hewett, is something of a modern day Elizabeth Macarthur. Elizabeth was wife of a pioneer of the Australian sheep industry, John Macarthur, and credited with a big contribution towards establishing the reputation of Australian Merino wool.

Like Elizabeth, Lorraine has been behind the scenes managing the business that tests hundreds of thousands of wool samples each year to help breeders identify the best sheep to keep as the next generation of breeders.

Lorraine and her team at AFT test each sample for a range of qualities like length, tensile strength, yield of clean wool and the all important fibre diameter.

They use a range of very accurate scientific equipment and computer programs to measure and record the details of each sample which is traced back to the sheep it came from. The breeder uses the information to decide whether a particular sheep measures up and stays in the flock or is culled.

Such was the pioneering nature of work carried out in the controlled environment laboratory located on the Hewett farm that some of the equipment was invented by Lorraine and her team. “Many of our staff have been very innovative,” she said. Some other instruments used were designed by scientists at the CSIRO and are among the most sophisticated and accurate in the world.

The laboratory was rebuilt in 1993 and additional equipment installed. The extra equipment was worth more than $½million at the time and gained the laboratory accreditation to test natural fibres from around Australia and the world.

Lorraine said her biggest challenge had always been finding staff. “We employed 30 in the first year, 10 were full time. “Our work is very seasonal over about seven or eight months a year. “The rest of the time there is nothing much to do.”

“Not many people can exist on seasonal work and many leave and do other things. “This means we have to train some new staff every year but we are pleased to see people move on to bigger and better things. “It’s nice to be able to give someone a leg up,” she said.

One young woman who worked in the lab was very quiet and unsure of herself initially but went on to travel the world in her profession as a veterinary assistant, Lorraine said.

Another of her workers had such a delicate touch with wool that she could tell Lorraine when the machine testing fibre diameter was a micron or two out and needed to be recalibrated. (A micron is 1000th of a millimetre!)

“While I really want to be in the lab handling wool I end up in the office most of the time. “I’ve had to become an expert at the computer and operating the machinery,” she said.

Not only has AFT provided jobs for many locals over the years it has made a point of using local trades and services whenever there have been things to be done. “The post office has been essential to our existence with wool from all over Australia as well as yarn and fabrics from around the world arriving for testing,” Lorraine said.

The business was originally established to meet the needs of sheep breeders who couldn’t afford the cost of having wool tested at commercial test houses. “We could do it for about half the cost. “There was a niche that wasn’t being serviced. “Many in the industry saw a need to measure ewes as well as rams but couldn’t afford it. “Australian Merino Society clients in WA were the reason we set up but there was an immediate Australia wide demand,” she said.

Lindsay McNeill


Photographs (from top)
Janet Darr and Lorraine Hewett prepare wool samples for micron testing in the AFT laboratory at York
Tracey Pearce and Lorraine with samples ready for length and strength testing.
Janet Darr in the process of testing the fibre diameter of wool samples and recording the results on computer.