Story: Agricultural processing industries

Page 3. Wool processing in the 19th century

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19th-century woollen mills

Wool processing was an obvious industry for New Zealand, with its huge flock of sheep and booming wool exports in the late 19th century. A letter in the Timaru Herald in 1870 asked ‘Why not use our own wool ... instead of sending it to England merely to be operated upon and returned to us enhanced in price?’1

New Zealand’s first woollen mills were built in 1871 in the South Island – at Mosgiel and Kaikorai in Otago. These were followed by mills in Kaiapoi (1879), Roslyn (1879), Ōamaru (1881) and Ashburton (1885). The North Island followed with mills in Onehunga, Napier, WhanganuiWanganui and Petone.

British machinery, managers and staff

Woollen mills usually bought British machinery – often in job lots, including everything from boilers to finishing machines – and recruited British staff.

Before setting up the Mosgiel Woollen Company, New Zealand’s first woollen mill, Arthur Burns went to Britain to buy machinery. The mill had coal-fired boilers, carding machines and spinning mules with 650 spindles, four blanket and tweed looms and machinery for finishing, washing and milling. Burns also hired a Scottish manager and mill hands.

Bonus spurs Burns’ mill


Arthur Burns was determined to win the £1,500 ‘bonus’ being offered by the Otago Provincial Council to the first company to produce 5,000 yards (4,572 metres) of woollen fabric. The first wool was put through the teasers at his Mosgiel Woollen Company on 20 September 1871 – and the first piece, which was tweed fabric, was finished on 23 October. ‘And Mr Burns, by way of setting a good example, had 2½ yards [2.3 metres] cut from it, out of which he had a pair of trousers made.’2 He won the bonus.


Wool products

New Zealand woollen mills produced blankets, fabrics such as tweeds, flannels, serges and worsteds (fine fabric used for men’s suits), and knitting yarn. Fabrics were mainly used in New Zealand rather than exported. When Bendix Hallenstein started the New Zealand Clothing Factory in Dunedin in 1873, he used material from the Roslyn and Mosgiel mills to make sturdy clothing for men.

Mill employees

Woollen mills were large employers. By 1881 New Zealand’s first four woollen mills had an average of 104 employees, and 10 years later its eight mills employed an average of 147 people. By 1900, 500 people were employed in the Roslyn mill. In 1968 woollen mills employed 4,500 people, but many had subsidiaries employing thousands of knitters and machinists.

Young women workers

Most woollen mill employees were young women, who were working between leaving school and getting married. They were paid much less than men. They were often employed on piece-work (‘by the piece’) rates, rather than by the hour, and some took work home at night. In the early 1880s some regularly worked 57 hours a week but could earn more than 20 shillings a week – about double what many women earned as domestic servants for just as long hours.



In 1875, during a debate on factory conditions, a Parliamentarian remarked that that ‘a woman who had learned to tend a loom should be as eligible to become a wife as if she had never been in a manufactory.’ 3 At that stage, many people saw mill work as unsuitable for women, but factory legislation helped make it more respectable as well as safer.


Factory regulation

The first factory legislation in New Zealand was aimed at protecting women workers in woollen mills. The Employment of Females Act 1873 gave them an eight-hour day from Monday to Friday, between the hours of 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. They also worked Saturday mornings. An amendment in 1874 said their work day could start at 8 a.m., and another in 1875 took away their half day off on Saturdays. An 1878 Royal Commission found the acts’ provisions were not enforced and that employers often sent work home for women to do at night, as outwork was not covered by the legislation.

The Factories Act 1894 replaced the women’s eight-hour day with a 48 hour week – which often meant nine hours on weekdays, plus Saturday mornings. In 1914 an amendment to the act limited women’s work to 45 hours a week, and by 1921 the 44-hour week was almost universal for women in factories.

Factory work was noisy and dangerous, especially in crowded and badly ventilated mills. Tinnitus and other hearing problems were common complaints. The factory acts of 1901 stopped women doing wet spinning unless they were protected from the steam, and prevented them working on mercurial or white-lead processes, which could be poisonous.

  1. Quoted in Nigel Smith, Heritage of industry: discovering New Zealand’s industrial history. Auckland: Reed, 2001 p. 165. Back
  2. Otago Witness, 25 October 1873, p. 1. Back
  3. Parliamentary Debates, vol. 19, 1875, p. 117. Back
How to cite this page:

Jane Tolerton, 'Agricultural processing industries - Wool processing in the 19th century', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

Story by Jane Tolerton, published 11 Mar 2010