The Onkaparinga Woollen Mill had been at the heart of the Lobethal community for more than a century before the Onkaparinga Woollen Co. Ltd. finally closed its doors in the 1990s. In the late 1960s, the company employed more than 1000 people and bought more wool than any other mill in Australia. Their products, including the famous Onkaparinga blankets, rugs, clothes and fabrics, were sought after throughout Australia and internationally.
Thanks to a business incubator centre at the now heritage-listed site, the wooll mill has a new lease on life. Wineries, a cheese factory, bakeries, a fruit juice maker, a metal fabricator and a sign writer now occupy some of the buildings. But it is inside the walls of Building 20 where the most exciting development is taking place.
A group of local artists, h.ART (or Hills Art), saw the potential for a community art centre based in the old Woollen Mill building. Their vision for the new exhibition and workshop space is to create a sense of place to celebrate the heritage buildings and the heritage of the Indigenous people who preceded the mill.
The group’s first exhibition, Woven at the Mill, during SALA 2015, consisted of a group exhibition based on pieces of vintage Onkaparinga blankets given to the artists as inspiration. The same concept was used during SALA 2016. The Threads of Industry exhibition was based on surplus pieces of tools and machinery made available by the Onkaparinga Mills Museum. Both exhibitions produced a variety of works ranging from textiles to painting and photography to sculpture.
h.ART’s most recent exhibition Words… seeing, listening, feeling was part of this year’s Adelaide Fringe and was be the sixth major art event in this unique space. The group exhibition consisted of visual art in a range of media including textiles, as well as performance art and spoken word art.
The 2017 season kicked off with Shibusa, a highly regarded ongoing exhibition by botanical alchemist India Flint. Flint, an internationally acclaimed Hills local, famous for her eco dyed textile work, participated in the Words exhibition as well. Her entry in h.ART’s inaugural exhibition is now a permanent fixture in the gallery’s foyer. It marks the perfect meeting point where resident talent and international acclaim meet on local ground.
Although h.ART never consciously singled out textiles as a focal medium, it just so happens that textiles and fibre make up a big part of group exhibitions and workshops held at Building 20. This same synergy happened again when a group of Hills-based textile artists came together in late 2016 to form TAG – Textile Arts Group. They will be affiliated with h.ART and based at the Mill. Their first group exhibition is planned for mid-2017.
It seems the Onkaparinga Woollen Mill has come full circle – from being the heart of the Lobethal community to being the inspiration for the h.ART community. The woollen threads left over from the blankets of yesteryear are being woven into a new creative and vibrant social fabric, connecting the people of the Adelaide Hills to the world outside. Just as the Onkaparinga blankets have done for many generations.
Ansie van der Walt is an Adelaide-based textile writer.