The International Back To Back Wool Challenge is a world-wide competition organised from Australia. Teams of spinners and knitters from all over the world get together (at separate venues) to shear a sheep, spin some yarn and knit a jumper… in eight hours or less.
I am a member of the Spinning Knitwits in Australia. There are eight members of the team: four knitters, two spinners, one plyer and one shearer, and I will be spinning all day.
It’s five minutes to nine on a Saturday morning, and I am ready and waiting for the time starter to call. There are two teams at our venue, and we are in the auditorium of the Sports Club in Merriwa, New South Wales, Australia.
The room is large and airy with plenty of space for the two teams, the sheep, the shearers and the audience, some of whom come to see us every year.
The other team is the Merriwa Jumbucks, who have competed nine times before. This is the fourth time the Spinning Knitwits have competed.
There are a few rules to help us keep on track that start with the pattern, which is an adults’ jumper to be knitted with a certain amount of stitches and rows. No scissors are to be used except for the shearers’ blade which, apart from shearing the sheep is used to cut the yarn when our job is done. The skill of the blade shearer is stunning and one of the lost arts of progress.
No-one is allowed to touch the fleece except the eight team members. The sheep we have been lucky enough to use are first cross Boarder Leicester/Merino which must have no special treatment to prepare them for the day.
As the shearer takes the first blow, one of our team takes the fleece and distributes it. The team begins spinning. In just a few minutes the singles will be plyed and the yarn will be handed to the Back and the Front knitters.
Time becomes surreal. At one stage I look at the clock thinking that half a day has passed and discover that it has only been ten minutes. I decide to get on with the job. The next time I see the clock, it’s been two hours.
Later the two Sleeve knitters will start and the spinners will have to go even faster. We now have two spinners and one plyer, producing the yarn for four knitters. The Plyer seems to be always aware of how much yarn is being produced and how much is immediately needed.
I discover that I am hungry. Each team has an assessor who counts the rows and stitches to ensure the jumper is correct, and the assessor for our team has several other jobs to do as well. They include cutting food into little pieces which she then pops into our mouths. She has straws ready for when we are thirsty, and talc for our tired hands and massages for our tired shoulders. She is the glue of our team.
My mind drifts to the social dinner last night and the easy meal planned for this night, the enjoyable two and a half hour trip we had to get here, the fun times we have had during the year, practicing, planning, inviting our friends and family…
The time is called. The Merriwa Jumbucks have set the new world record in 4 hours, 51 minutes and 14 seconds. What an achievement!
This is only our fourth year in the competition, and we have attained second place in Australia and third place in the world. There are a couple of Japanese teams that are giving us a run for our money.
Is it like watching paint dry? No, it’s more like frenetic tranquility.
Why do we do this? For the best fun? Yes. To raise money for cancer? Yes. To raise awareness of the wool industry? Yes. And to help to preserve the skills of blade shearing, hand spinning and knitting, while hoping to interest more people in keeping these skills alive.
In 2004 there were eight Australian teams, three Canadian teams and four Japanese teams. Some years there were as many as 40. And as we have so much fun at this event we are hoping to interest more teams around the world to enter.
We are happy to give any new teams a few strategies to get them started. This year our guild is hosting the event in our region, the beautiful Hunter Valley, for the first time. We are planning a fun day that also includes other like crafty groups and traders.
The International Back to Back Challenge is held on or before, and as close to as possible to, the weekend of 11 and 12 of June.
The Australian co-ordinator
Web: Back to Back Wool Challenge
This Year’s Attempt on the Record
The Spinning Knitwits and two other teams will compete at Tocal Homestead, Tocal Road, Paterson (15 minutes north of Maitland) on Sunday, 12 June 2005.
There will be textile workshops, goods for sale, textile displays, trade displays, heritage displays and the homestead will be open for inspection.
Motel accommodation on site is available.