1st January 2021

The story of the clothing and textile industry in Australia: part 1


Cotton has been grown in Australia since 1788, but not successfully on a large scale until the 1960s. Most Australian cotton is grown in New South Wales and Southern Queensland and then exported. A small amount of organic Australian-made cotton fabric is  produced.

A newspaper article in 1919 stated that Australia was not producing cotton, linen or silk.


Woollen cloth

From the early days when convict tailor’s convict uniforms as part of their punishment and rehabilitation, the clothing industry was to grow in size and importance. An early part of the industry was the establishment of the wool trade. In August 1803 Governor King appointed a Scottish convict weaver to run a weaving establishment. This was the beginning of an organised woollen industry in Australia, although female convicts had been spinning and weaving before this.  Sheep had been brought out with the first fleet in 1788.

By the 1820s, cloth was being manufactured in the colonies, and settlers were spinning their fleece into course cloth for home use. However, most Australian wool was exported to the English milling town to be made into cloth ready to be imported back into Australia.

The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW), 14th January 1828 page 2.

In 1827 a Tasmanian journalist, trying to encourage local trades and manufacture for the  colony, and in light of depressed prices for wool in the British market at that time, stated “that a better thing in the outset could not possibly be started than a Cloth Manufactory, established on an extensive and effective scale.”

The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (NSW), 15th April 1843 page 22.  This was part of a discussion about the desirability of establishing a cloth factory near Maitland.

Another journalist in 1853 bemoaned the situation, encouraging local capitalists to put their money into local manufacturing, and to pay for experienced labour to come out to Australia. He noted that tweed was already being made here, so other cloth could surely be made profitably? This type of argument would be repeated many times; surely cloth/pearl buttons/casein/etc could be made here competitively, due to the large distances and costs involved in exporting to the other side of the world and then re-importing? Often it turned out that no, without import tariffs, they couldn’t. They couldn’t compete against established and experienced mass producers with their lowly paid work forces.

None-the-less, over the next 70 years woollen mills were set up around Australia, near to wherever flocks were grazed. As well as Parramatta (from 1803), there were mills in Launceston (from 1874), Geelong (from 1868), Melbourne, Lobethal ( from 1872), Ballarat (from 1871), Lithgow (from 1857), Hobart (from 1883), and more.

The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW ), 28th June 1902 page 1624. Marrickville Woollen Mills. Wool sorting.

Marrickville Woollen Mills. Worsted Combing and Spinning,

In 1910 tariffs were introduced to protect and encourage local industry. It also had the side-effect of encouraging foreign companies to set up factories here so as not to be priced out of the local market.

From a longer article about industry and tariffs in the Sunday Times (Sydney), 29th June 1924 page 3. In 1939 a proposal to reduce duties on woollen piece goods was defeated. The tariff was necessary  “to offset prejudice (that) still exists in some quarters against Australian cloths.”

The West Australian(Perth), 25th September 1929 page 10. It was all so easy; just buy Australian. Then why were tariffs needed?

The Australian textile industry grew quickly in the 1920s, but the due to the great depression half the woollen mills in Australia either shut, or reduced capacity.

The Brisbane Courier, 27th February 1931 page 9.

The Age (Melbourne), 8th September 1931 page 8.

The boom in demand caused by WW1 and WW2  lead to large increases in employment in the industry. However, from the 1970-90s, tariffs were reduced, and the industry went into decline. They could have only survived by increasing already high tariffs which would had driven up the already inflated local prices. Many factories and mills have closed.

The Canberra Times, 2nd March 1978 page 17: Exerts from an article titled “Tariffs – protecting jobs or profits?”. According to the article, footwear was the 4th most profitable manufacturing industry, yet paid its workers only 82% of the average manufacturing wage despite a tariff of 45%. Knitting mills and clothing was 8th most profitable yet workers received 77% of the average wage despite protection worth 70%.

For examples of buttons linked to some of these firms, see  http://www.austbuttonhistory.com/branded-buttons/branded-buttons-manufacturers/




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