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Ructions and removal from Alexandra, cancellation, threat of boycott and a coup — it has all the ingredients of a homegrown soap — Alexandra’s own Wool Opera. There is no doubt about it, WoolOn has wobbled at various points in its colourful history. But has it bounced back?
Mary-Jo Tohill reports.

Creative design competition WoolOn has received 40 entries for the come-back show on August 13-15.

And WoolOn governance committee chairwoman Mary Hinsen has breathed a huge sigh of relief.

‘‘After a two›year hiatus, we wondered if we’d get the entries. It means we can stage an event.’’

It was a close thing. If they had received 20, it would have meant a much smaller show than the committee would have liked.

But with fewer than 20, the show would have most certainly been canned. There were 55 entries in 2018 when WoolOn was last held.

‘‘So we’ve got more than we thought . . .and what is really great is that some of those that didn’t enter this year are working on entries for next year, so that means we’ve got ongoing entrants.’’

Opening up the age of entrants had helped numbers too, she said.

‘‘The interesting thing is that we’ve got some young entries, and we’re really excited about them.’’

They ranged from age 7 to 70-plus.

Felt flower … WoolOn’s youngest contestant Sophia Hinsen (7), of Alexandra enjoyed learning needle felting while she worked on her piece for this year’s show.

Some were secondary school› aged and Mrs Hinsen’s granddaughter Sophia Hinsen
(7), of Alexandra, was the only primary school-aged entrant. She learned the art of needle felting from YouTube and her Nana.

Needle felting is a craft that involves repeatedly stabbing a needle into a piece of wool. The wool can be adhered to a felt backing, and shaped into a variety of objects. Sophia had been experimenting with flowers, rocket ships and eyes.

“I thought it was going to be hard, but it’s easy. The hardest part is not to break the needle.”

A keen artist, she also liked to sew and knit with Nana.

“I like it because I like trying new things and seeing what I can do, and what others can do.”

“It’s great that she’s so keen to learn,” Mrs Hinsen said.

Sophia would be taking part in the expo workshops following WoolOn with one of the oldest contestants, weaver Elaine Wells , of Clyde.

Mrs Wells said she felt woolcraft was important an important skill for the younger generations to be learning.

“It’s absolutely delightful to have a person to pass the knowledge on to. I think it’s even more important now .. with all this depression and stuff around, you would really think people could do with something like this that keeps them interested,” Mrs Wells said.

A five-time entrant in WoolOn, Mrs Wells was looking forward to seeing the event continue and grow.

“I think [WoolOn] is special to Central Otago because we are in the heart of merino country, and that’s the reason I’m supporting it this year, as I don’t want it to not continue on,” she said.

The expo was open to people of all ages.

“Part of the focus [of the competition] is to provide good education,” Mrs Hinsen said.

“That’s one of the reasons we opened it up, to bring wool design and techniques to a new generation. If you don’t bring in young designers, then you don’t have an industry.”

The committee was working closely with spinners and weavers to keep those skills coming through, and was already looking ahead to 2022 and holding summer holiday programmes.

Mrs Hinsen was thrilled with the support shown for the show.

“We’ve actually opened up the ticket sales late because we had so many pre-sales.”

She hoped the event would eventually return to Alexandra, “if we can find a suitable venue”.

WoolOn will take place over three days at The Canyon, at Tarras Vineyard, and at Central Stories in Alexandra, as well as on a virtual platform.

Holding the WoolOn winners parade at Central Stories Museum and Art Gallery on the Sunday after the main event would keep an Alexandra presence, she said.

Even with the controversial removal of the main fashion event from Alexandra, the organisers hope that the format of WoolOn 2021 will put a new and smoother spin on the show’s somewhat knotty history.

Top honours . . . Alexandra designer Daphne Randle’s “Radiation” (left) parades the catwalk with other category winners at the 2013 WoolOn in Alexandra last weekend. PHOTO: JANYNE FLETCHER

WOOLON TIMELINE

2004 WoolOn born

WoolOn has it roots in the Miss Wool of Otago competition first held in conjunction with the Fine Wool Shearing Championships in Alexandra in 1964. Through the 1980s it evolved into a fashion event, and by 2004 had morphed into the creative fashion genre it is today as a (then) key event of the Alexandra Blossom Festival.

“Mirror Image”, by Laurel Judd, of Napier, winner of the avant garde category, WoolOn Creative Fashion Event, August 18 2018, Alexandra. PHOTO: JANYNE FLETCHER
2016: WoolOn alone

In February 2016 came the bombshell announcement that after a lot of angst and a public meeting, the show would break away from the Alexandra Blossom Festival and become a stand-alone event, and not be run as the final gala event. The reins were passed over to a separate WoolOn committee and governance body.

2019 WoolOngate
By mid 2019, the fleece had begun to fly in a disastrous fashion: The show, which was to have been held in August, was cancelled in June because the organiser realised that Molyneux Stadium was unsuitable. While a date was set for 2020 (August 14-15), the seed of doubt was sown whether the show would even remain in Alexandra.

The news that the show would move to Cromwell, to Highlands Motorsport Park, led to incredulous anger, outrage and heartbreak.

Longtime participant and several times supreme winner Daphne Randle lambasted the committee for lack of consultation and taking out a clause in the WoolOn constitutionthat the event must be held within 18km of Alexandra. She announced she would boycott the event, and her husband Stan Randle formed a breakaway faction.

2020 WoolOn wobbles

By February 2020, the WoolOn Creative Fashion Society was struggling to fill key roles and the then chairwoman Victoria Ravenscroft got a grilling about the reason behind moving WoolOn to Highlands and why Alexandra venues were not suitable or had not been considered.

“Ready for Fun”, by Daphne Randle, of Alexandra, 2018 WoolOn Creative Fashion Event. PHOTO: JANYNE FLETCHER

In March, things had descended to heated discussions, claims of unconstitutional behaviour and walkouts. And at a closed door meeting to elect a committee, Mr Randle lost his bid to be elected as chairman and the incumbent Ms Ravenscroft held on to her position.

And then, after all that, a few weeks later, along came Covid-19, and holding a show anywhere other than online became a moot point. 

The society got new faces on the organising committee and a new chairwoman, Mary Hinsen.

2021 WoolOn MovingOn

In May this year, WoolOn showed signs of bouncing back. The organisers announced a rejigged format for 2021 — and a compromise that did not include Highlands.

In an attempt to exorcise its demons, a new-look event was announced, which would take place over three days at The Canyon at Tarras Vineyard and Central Stories in Alexandra, as well as on a virtual platform.