Polwarth sheep have been bred at the historic Tarndwarncoort in south-west Victoria for nearly 140 years and brothers Tom and Alastair Dennis are proud to continue their family's long tradition of producing quality wool.
The brothers are the sixth generation of the Dennis family to live at Tarndwarncoort, near Colac, and have taken over the day-to-day operations of the family's flock and innovative yarn business from their parents, David and Wendy.
In 1840 three Dennis brothers arrived in Australia from Cornwall in England and settled at Tarndwarncoort with their flock of Saxon Merino sheep.
According to Tom Dennis, the cold, wet climate of the western districts proved problematic for the Merinos.
A 25-year breeding program was started in 1880 to develop a dual-purpose sheep which was officially named the Polwarth in 1919.
These days, the Dennis family run about 700 Polwarth ewes, including a flock of about 100 naturally-coloured black and brown sheep, on their 200-hectare property.
Alastair is responsible for the Polwarth flock and management of the farm, while Tom looks after the wool processing and yarn sales, marketed as Tarndie Wool.
About 1200 kilograms of greasy wool from the Tarndwarncoort flock is processed each year, producing 800kg of mill-spun knitting yarn.
The remaining wool is sold through the raw wool market.
"I buy the raw wool from Alastair and take it through the process to be sold as a knitting yarn," Tom said.
The wool is scoured in Geelong at EP Robinson before being spun in New Zealand.
Tarndie Wool also works closely with local company, Great Ocean Road Woollen Mill, to trial and manufacture their bespoke yarn range.
"What we have found is that people love to have fibre diversity and they enjoy the story of understanding the origins of their jumper," he said.
"Having different breeds of sheep and their wool commercially available adds a lot of flavour to Australian wool craft."
Mr Dennis said Tarndie Wool yarn has its own special characteristics which are keenly sought throughout Australia and overseas for both knitting and crochet.
"The knitting yarn is very soft-handling and Polwarth wool also has a depth of lustre and shine to it which makes it more attractive," he said.
Tarndie Wool is sold through their farm shop, online and at several markets including the Australian Sheep & Wool Show in Bendigo and the Celebration of Wool in Canberra, ACT.
"We don't wholesale our woollen products as we want to hold onto that retail value which has allowed us to develop better relationships with our customers," he said.
The Dennis brothers work closely to ensure the wool specifications are met.
This includes a staple length of 100-120 millimetres, a 21-23 micron range and more than 40 Newtons per kilotex staple strength.
They now source rams from the Potter family's local stud, Fairview, to expand their Polwarth genetics and improve wool quality.
Shearing is carried out in mid-February and the ewes start lambing in late July.
The Polwarth ewe lambs are retained in the flock while most of the wethers are also kept for wool production.
With a keen interest in soil health and pasture diversity, Alastair has introduced cell grazing which he said works well with the quiet temperament of the Polwarths.
"It is very flexible for a small farm and it has allowed us to better utilise our pasture growth and maintain full ground cover," he said.
Keyline water design principles are being used to improve water flow across the farm and he is also trialling the use of tractor exhaust gas emissions for fertiliser and foliar sprays.
Plans are underway for a major re-development at Tarndwarncoort to cater for the growing tourism market. This will include accommodation, workshops and a farm cafe.