An exhibition telling the story of an old Kiwi shearing shed practice, which produced some of the country’s earliest export brands that represented New Zealand internationally, will be launched at Totara Estate near Oamaru on November 14. 

Secret Lives of Stencils is an exhibition that celebrates the life and 150-year history of the New Zealand wool bale stencil – and aims to preserve the memory of an aspect of our pastoral heritage that is rapidly disappearing. 

“Many Kiwis will be familiar with stencil letters used by sheep farmers to mark their wool bales when they sent their wool by ship to British sales,” says Dr Annette O’Sullivan of Massey University School of Design, who undertook the research, design and photography for the exhibition. 

“Marks that were stencilled on wool bales represented the personal identity of the original owners, and were used in branding sheep stations. More recently they have come to represent rural New Zealand identity. Secret Lives of Stencils tells the story of New Zealand branding and identity through the history of wool bale stencils in a series of interpretation panels and photographs of objects from iconic New Zealand sheep stations.”

Wool bale stencils were usually made of tin, zinc, copper or aluminium. To make a mark, the stencil plate was held against the bale or sack containing wool, with paint or ink then brushed across the plate through the open letter spaces onto the material below – a simple and easy way of printing information on the coarse hemp or flax material of a bale. 

“Recognition of the importance of the brand to the station inspired many owners to use it for their station identity. Station stencils were applied to post boxes, gates and the sides of trucks, while brand marks were used on stationery, personal items and tools,” says Annette. 

“Today, many stations owned by generations of the same family acknowledge the significance of their stencil brand in the design of their websites, for example, bringing a depth of story and authenticity to their identity.”

Secret Lives of Stencils – a joint collaboration between Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga and Massey University College of Creative Arts Toi Rauwhārangi – will eventually tour the length and breadth of the country once it has finished its inaugural season at Totara Estate. 

The historic farmstead, cared for by Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga, is the perfect venue for the launch according to Totara Estate Property Manager Keren Mackay. 

“In 1860, wool made up 90 percent of New Zealand’s export earnings; and by 1866 Totara Estate had an impressive 17,654 sheep – a significant contribution to the region’s wool clip,” says Keren.

“Ironically, though, it was a downturn in wool prices, combined with a glut in sheep meet, that led William Davidson to send the first-ever shipment of frozen mutton from Totara Estate on a three-month journey from New Zealand to England in 1882. In the process he launched an industry that generated prosperity and strengthened the place of sheep farming in the New Zealand economy.”

Launching this important exhibition at a place which had such a significant impact on sheep farming in New Zealand has a nice symmetry according to Keren.

“Wool bale stencils are special to us as a country, and many Kiwis can relate to them through their own personal use or experience. This exhibition shines a well-deserved spotlight on this iconic part of our agricultural heritage,” she says.  

“The exhibition will be launched at the Totara Estate Shepherd’s Picnic on November 14, and is the perfect opportunity for people to come along and view Secret Lives of Stencils for themselves, while enjoying what also promises to be a fantastic day out. It also ties in with Oamaru’s annual Victorian Heritage Celebrations.”