Merino mask developed to meet coronavirus demand

Walkamin horticultural order among many wanting personal protective equipment

Coronavirus
Kerrie Richards' Merino Country factory at Shailer Park has turned to the full-time production of face masks made of Merino wool. Picture supplied.

Kerrie Richards' Merino Country factory at Shailer Park has turned to the full-time production of face masks made of Merino wool. Picture supplied.

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Queensland wool garment maker Merino Country is rapidly repurposing its business and machines into the production of masks in order to help meet demand from the public for personal protective equipment.

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Queensland wool garment maker Merino Country is rapidly repurposing its business and machines into the production of masks in order to help meet demand from the public for personal protective equipment.

Among one of its first bulk orders was Walkamin-based horticultural company, Howe Farming Enterprises, for its workforce of nearly 600.

Company owner, Richmond-born Kerrie Richards said she was in talks with Queensland's Department of State Development about ensuring raw material supply, while the masks were undergoing trials at the University of Queensland to determine their filtering ability and moisture permeability.

The high temperature heat treatment that Merino Country uses to make its famous Wundies, which sets the fabric and gives it a tight fit, makes it different from any other woollen fabric, according to Ms Richards.

"The testing brief is to look at the morphology and filtering ability of our fabric," she said.

"I'm very conscious that we don't sell these masks under false pretences.

"They're not surgical or P2 masks so we're not making claims, but the properties of Merino wool are a natural barrier as well as being a breathable fabric and having wicking and anti-microbial qualities.

"A face mask will provide a barrier and make people aware of touching their face."

Ms Richards had prototype masks in development when coronavirus began spreading outside China, thanks to a request from Dr Dimity Dornan, the founder of Bionics Queensland.

She had a need to protect a family member from allergens and approached Merino Country for help.

"So we had already started work on the masks when this happened," Ms Richards said. "We had done a lot of experimentation, making up versions and getting people to wear them."

As a previous supplier of thermals for Victorian police, the Australian Defence Force, Border Control and the Australian Antarctic Division, Ms Richards said her business was experienced in dealing in big quantities and delivering quickly.

The business has ceased production on its other products to concentrate on mask making, and is putting on experienced out-of-work machinists who had been employed in sports uniform production to meet demand.

James Howe said his Walkamin staff had been making makeshift masks out of Chux wipes prior to being supplied with Merino Country masks, and had been eyeing off the precious supply of P2 masks needed for chemical spray work.

"The anxiety was there, they were feeling concerned about what's ahead," he said.

Howe Farming Enterprises packing staff wearing Merino Country masks. Pictures supplied.

Howe Farming Enterprises packing staff wearing Merino Country masks. Pictures supplied.

His enterprise grows bananas, avocados, coffee, sugarcane, blueberries and peanuts, and while he said paddock workers didn't feel the need to wear masks all the time, they did while in transit to and from work.

Shed staff insist on wearing masks at all times.

"I had worn one of Kerrie's Merino scarves on a flight back from Japan, and her Merino masks were what came up when I googled for a supply for staff," Mr Howe said.

"They were a great find. The delivery was fast, I could buy over 500 and I'm stoked that they're Merino and supporting a great Australian company."

Howe Farming Enterprises paddock workers were also keen to wear personal protective equipment.

Howe Farming Enterprises paddock workers were also keen to wear personal protective equipment.

Mr Howe said they were having regular toolbox talks with staff and trying to keep everyone educated about what they needed to do to protect themselves from coronavirus.

"We've made it very clear these masks won't stop them getting it, and we have local supplies of ethanol on hand too," he said. "The masks are a good reminder for them of what we're dealing with."

He said they could be washed each night and reused.

"We've never had anything like this to deal with before," he said. "It's usually cyclones that get us this nervous, or Panama TR4."

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