Graham Weaver’s home, sitting perched on the cliffs of Manuka Bay (North Canterbury) with views stretching out across the ocean, is adorned with the relics of a rich and full life. Antiques, French fabric, and books on every topic – in both French and English are stacked artfully around the cosy cottage. The walls are lined with photos, testament to a life of adventure and travel that have seen Graham, a highly regarded blade shearer, reside between Burgundy, France and New Zealand over a varied 30-year career based firmly around a life-long passion for wool.
The catalyst for this unexpected direction of Graham’s life was the 1981 Springbok Tour, which not only shook up New Zealand as a whole, but changed the course of his own life completely. Graham was studying nursing at the time, and was arrested whilst protesting apartheid amidst the highly controversial South African Rugby tour of New Zealand. That arrest resulted in Graham missing one of his final and crucial nursing exams, meaning he failed his training. After being released from custody and recovering at a friend’s house on the couch, he watched a documentary on blade shearing that immediately sparked his interest and led to a long love affair with wool and the shearing industry. He was never to return to nursing again. He was hooked.
After studying machine and blade shearing at Burnham through the free courses on offer through Federated Farmers at the time, Graham worked for shearing contractor Allan Reid in Rangiora. In 1982, sheep numbers in New Zealand were at a record high of 70.3 million, compared to around 27 million now. With sheep numbers at this level, Reid’s gang were shearing a staggering one million sheep per year with a gang of 100 shearers. This meant that shearers did not need to be as itinerant, and Reid’s shearing gang could be kept in steady work without having to travel more than 30 kilometres from Rangiora. Those shearers that were specifically blade shearers, specialising in the pre-lamb shear of finer wool breeds, would work in the freezing works in Belfast in the off-season.
‘As a blade shearer, we would be able to work eight months per year,’ Graham says. ‘Now the season for blade shearing is more like three months.’ Conversions to dairying, cropping and viticulture, as well as farmers being lured to cattle for higher beef prices and the ever present urban sprawl mean that sheep numbers are likely to remain low, but that isn’t the only challenge facing the shearing industry in New Zealand. ‘The size of the sheep; sheep have got bigger,’ Graham says. ‘The whole technological age means there are not so many people interested in skilled manual labour.’ The Trans-Tasman pay gap is also an issue. ‘Shearers have just had a 25 per cent wage increase which is long overdue,’ Graham says. ‘But it’s still less than they could make in Australia.’
A yearning for adventure and connection with a French shearing magazine saw Graham move to France, staying in a large house that had previously been a convent in the village of Charolles in the South of Burgundy. The first night staying in his new home, Graham noted how comfortable the mattress on his bed was. ‘I woke up in the morning and I was so warm,’ he says. He immediately asked his host about the mattress and was surprised to learn it was made from wool by a matelassier (the French term for an artisan mattress maker) in the same village. Graham asked the matelassier if he would teach him the craft of woollen mattress making, and so Graham’s lessons began. He would spend a week or so at a time learning the craft as he travelled between France and New Zealand over the following years.
Woollen mattresses originated in the 16th century when sacks were literally stuffed with wool as people looked at more hygienic and comfortable bedding options. In the 17th century, mattresses became more sophisticated, and with the increase in skilled matelassiers, the artisan wool mattress became the mattress of choice in France, as well as Italy and Greece. Wool was scoured (cleaned and removed of lanolin – the natural oil that is found in wool), before being carded and layered around a metre high on a special table. The wool was then compressed between the mattress fabric (either cotton ticking or linen) and hand-stitched and buttoned. This is the method that Graham still practises today, using locally-sourced cross-bred Perendale wool.
The resulting mattress will last indefinitely, and matelassiers will service the mattress every 10 years, cleaning the wool, washing the fabric and restuffing the mattress – a process that can be completed in a day, meaning it can be back on your bed that night. This makes the woollen mattresses an extremely environmentally friendly option, and even if the mattress is eventually thrown away, its lack of springs and composition of entirely natural fibres makes it completely biodegradable – something to consider when 50,000 standard mattresses are tossed per year in landfills in the United States alone. Conventional mattresses can be recycled, but the labour involved in dismantling them often makes it unviable to do so. Re-using mattresses is also tricky for hygiene reasons: it is estimated that conventional mattresses double their weight in eight years from dust mites and human debris, such as shed skin cells. Artisan wool mattresses regulate temperature and are without the sometimes toxic chemicals found in the mass-produced mattresses we buy today, and because wool is naturally fire resistant, there is no need for wool mattresses to be treated with fire retardant chemicals.
Graham’s foray into mattress making also led him down the path of antique French furniture restoration, a common sideline for matelassiers. In 2010, Graham opened the White Cat Emporium in Cheviot, selling furniture sourced from markets during his trips to France. The emporium was open for five years, a treasure trove of French vintage furniture, with a workshop at the back where Graham worked making his bespoke mattresses. These days, when he isn’t learning the banjo or lovingly restoring his ancient Bedford house bus, Graham makes mattresses to order only, from the workshop by his seaside cottage.
WORDS & IMAGES Claire Inkson