The Benson & Hedges (1964-1995) which became the Smokefree Fashion Design Awards (1996-1998) encouraged designs in wool, promoting one of New Zealand's primary industries. The Awards were televised from 1971, and toured regional New Zealand giving entrants a very high profile.

Yet a tension existed between the status of wool textiles used in fashion designs entered into the Wool Awards; and the homespun items entered by woolgrowers, eligible for The Woolgrowers' Award for Handcrafted Wool Fashion.

by Natalie Smith

The Benson & Hedges (1964-1995) which became the Smokefree Fashion Design Awards (1996-1998) encouraged designs in wool, promoting one of New Zealand's primary industries. The Awards were televised from 1971, and toured regional New Zealand giving entrants a very high profile.

Yet a tension existed between the status of wool textiles used in fashion designs entered into the Wool Awards; and the homespun items entered by woolgrowers, eligible for The Woolgrowers' Award for Handcrafted Wool Fashion.

In 1937 New Zealand joined the International Wool Secretariat (IWS) with South Africa and Australia to promote wool to Northern Hemisphere markets. IWS established the Woolmark brand in 1964, an international certification promoting excellence in wool over synthetics.[1] The New Zealand Wool Board's (NZWB) decision to sponsor a Wool Award in the Benson & Hedges Fashion Design Awards (BHFDA) in 1965 encouraged national excellence in the use of wool in fashion; and the judging panel often included an IWS representative. Taumarunui designer, Michael Mattar's elegant evening wear, which won the Wool Award in 1968 and 1969, epitomised the calibre of design in wool sought by judges.

Woolgrowers' were excluded from the premier Wool Award, thus drawing a line between the use of manufactured wool textiles in design and individually handcrafted and designed garments. In 1977 the Wool Board launched the Woolgrowers' Award for Handcrafted Wool Fashion, within the BHFDA, giving visibility to entrants, mostly women, from regional New Zealand who took wool off the sheep’s back, and spun and wove it into garments.

The Woolgrowers' award dovetailed with the 'counter culture' movement of the 1960s-1970s, and a growing desire from the general public for unique handcrafted clothing. Heightened demand led to an increase in the number of galleries, craft co-operatives and studios selling garments. One such place was Browns Mill market, a collective of woodturners, potters, weavers and textile designers, established in Auckland in 1968. The market's regular Mill Fashion Show included woven, spun, handknitted and hand dyed garments.[2]

1970s publications promoting the link between fashion and craft included Marshall Cavendish’s Golden Hands, Encyclopedia of Crafts (1975), enthusiastically collected by New Zealand women, and Pam Cullen’s essay “Weaving for Wearing” published in Web (1973), and in Spindles and Shafts (1980). Weavers Ilse von Randow and Zena Abbott further endorsed the craft/fashion link, creating textiles for Bruce Papas, who designed collections for department store Milne & Choyce.

Elaine Fowler of Milton, South Otago, won the Woolgrowers Award in 1979 for this ensemble.

© All rights reserved Josephine Brodie Collection

BHFDA organiser, Josephine Brodie consulted with the New Zealand Spinning, Weaving and Woolcrafts Society Inc. (NZSWWS) to bring woolgrowers into the awards after attending a fashion parade organized by the Nelson branch of the society.[3] Shows, like that held in Nelson, led to the establishment of a Fashion Standing Committee within the NZSWWS, the first formal parade under this committee happened in 1978.

Woolcraft’s status within fashion was strengthened when June Mercer of Palmerston North won both the Woolgrowers' Award and the BHFDA Supreme Award in 1978 for a 4-piece ensemble described on national television by Brodie as, “authentically New Zealand…”. 

Mercer’s entry in grey natural Romney cross wool, which she spun herself, is in the Eden Hore Collection - Central Otago District Council. Hore, a sheep and cattle farmer from Naseby, collected 1970s New Zealand fashion, especially designs using wool or skin initially to show overseas visitors to his farm. 

Woolgrowers' Award entrants were required to provide a statement on the breed of wool used, yarn samples and, for woven entries, indicate the proportion of handspun yarn in the cloth. Garments had to be made from pure wool but could contain 5% lurex and/or natural suede or leather trimmings. Only complete outfits with a "handcrafted character" were accepted.

Michelle Disher, Otorohanga, won the 1982 Woolgrowers’ Award for Handcrafted Wool Fashion for this knitted ski outfit.

© All Rights Reserved Alexander Turnbull Library, PA-Group-00685

Après-ski ensembles were popular, reflecting the development of commercial ski fields in New Zealand. Elaine Fowler of Milton, South Otago, a spinner, weaver and colourist was a first time BHFDA entrant when she won the 1979 Woolgrowers' Award for ski-wear made from Romney wool grown on the family farm.

Beverly Horne, Napier, a master spinner and author of Fleece in Your Hands (1979), and Michelle Disher, Otorohanga, were highly commended in this section. In 1982 Disher won the Woolgrowers' Award for a natural shaded Perendale ski outfit. In 1984 Whangarei designer and BHFDA stalwart Neridah Haworth won the award for an outfit made from Perendale.

Neridah Haworth, Whangarei won the Woolgrowers' Award in 1984 for this striking five piece outfit spun mostly from Perendale with patchwork detailing on the jacket and an appliqued jumper.

© All rights reserved Vicki Andrews

The NZWB discontinued the Woolgrowers’ Award in 1986, announcing support for a new design award through the Crafts Council of New Zealand and the Spinners and Weavers Association. Bill Rushworth, NZWB stated the “homespun” look was doing the “wool craft industry in New Zealand more harm than good”.[4]

Rushworth's comments highlight fashion's fickleness, and the changes in the fashion industry. The handcrafted look was superseded in the Eighties by colourful handknits produced by entrepreneurs Lee Andersen and Roz Mexted. Trade liberalisation further forced designers beyond traditional crafting to research, innovation and the development of what Lonsdale calls a "modern contemporary" look in wool.

Header image: June Mercer of Palmerston North raised the profile of Woolgrowers in New Zealand when she won the BHSFDA Supreme Award in 1978.   All Rights reserved, Maysie Bestall-Cohen Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library,  PAColl-6428-02-01

Crafting Aotearoa 

This article is part of a collection of 52 essays that form an online companion to the book, Crafting Aotearoa. Spanning three centuries of making and thinking in Aotearoa New Zealand and the wider Moana (Pacific), this book looks at the artistic practices that, at different times and for different reasons, have been described by the term craft. Crafting Aotearoa tells previously untold stories of craft in Aotearoa New Zealand, so that the connections, as well as the differences and tensions, can be identified and explored. This book proposes a new idea of craft – one that acknowledges Pākehā, Māori and wider Moana histories of making, as well as diverse community perspectives towards objects and their uses and meanings.

Edited by Karl Chitham, Kolokesa U Māhina-Tuai and Damian Skinner

Hardcover book published by Te Papa Press

RRP $94.00

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Smith, Natalie. 'Handcrafted Wool Fashion', Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Published: 11/11/2019.


1. Lonsdale T. (1996). 'Changing Strategies for the Marketing of New Zealand Wool', Journal of the Textile Institute, vol. 87 (3), pp. 24-33.

2. Donnelly, A., (1970). 'The Most Exciting Place in New Zealand', Eve, November. 48-52.

3. Enthusiasm Strong for New Wool Fashion Award’ 23 January 1977, newspaper clipping Josephine Brodie Collection

4. Rushworth, B., (1985) Personal Communication from Bill Rushworth, Manager, Apparel Products, NZ Wool Board to Benson & Hedges Fashion Design Awards organisers. MS-Papers-7026-14. Maysie Bestall- Cohen Papers, National Library of New Zealand, Wellington

More information

Douglas Lloyd-Jenkins, The Textiles of Ilse von Randow, Auckland War Memorial Museum: Auckland, 1998.

Jean Abbott and Shirley Bourke, Spin a Yarn Weave a Dream: A History of the New Zealand Spinning, Weaving and Woolcrafts Society Inc., 1969-1994, New Zealand Spinning, Weaving and Woolcrafts Society Inc.,: North Shore, 1994

Heather Nicholson, The Loving Stitch: A History of Knitting and Spinning in New Zealand, Auckland University Press: Auckland, 1998.

Spindles and Shafts: A Fibrecrafts Anthology, Havelock North: New Zealand Spinning Weaving & Woolcrafts Society, 1980.

Josephine Brodie, Benson & Hedges Fashion Design Awards (1978) New Zealand On Screen https//

Natalie Smith, Neridah Haworth, NZ Fashion Museum, April 2018.