Botanic Gardens Trust, Sydney, Australia

Shearing sheep at the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden?

Shearing a sheep, spinning the wool and knitting a sweater. From the back of the sheep to the back of the shearer within eight hours! That’s the ‘Back to Back’, an international challenge the Kurrajong Handspun Crafts team take up every year. This is the 10th time they have entered this international challenge and in that time they have raised more than $50,000 for cancer research.

This year, for the first time, the Back to Back will by hosted by the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden, Mount Tomah, on Sunday 1 June. The sheep will be shorn at 8 am and the sweater must be finished before 4 pm. All money raised will be donated to the Cancer Council NSW for prostate cancer research.

Back to Back International Wool Challenge

When: Sunday 1 June 2014, 8 am, until the challenge is complete!
Where: The Blue Mountains Botanic Garden, Bells Line of Road, Mount Tomah NSW 2758
Cost: Gold coin donation
Enquiries: Phone 4567 3000 or email

To sponsor a team member, contact Dawne on 4567 1215 or Annette on 4567 2222. All proceeds raised for the Cancer Council NSW (Prostate Cancer Research)

The Story of the Back to Back

A bet made in 1811 was the starting point for a challenge that, more than 200 years later, is known as the Back to Back International Wool Challenge. When John Coxeter, a well known cloth manufacturer from Newbury in England, remarked in conversation with Sir John Throckmorton that he could ‘take the coat from the back of Sir John’s sheep and turn it back into a coat for Sir John in a day’, Sir John bet him one thousand guineas and the challenge was on!

Two of Sir John’s finest Southdown sheep were delivered to Coxeter’s Greenham Mill at 5 am on 25 June 1811. They were shorn, the wool spun, the loom ‘dressed’, the cloth woven, dyed, dried, cut and pressed before handing the cloth to James White, the tailor. The coat was finished in 13 hours and 20 minutes and worn by Sir John at the dinner he hosted for the 5000 onlookers. The party celebrated with 120 gallons of strong beer (a gift from John Coxeter, winner of the one thousand guineas) and the roasted sheep!

180 years later, at the Newbury Agricultural Show the challenge was laid again, sponsored by Newbury Department Store, Camp Hopson. This time the coat was completed in 12 hours, 36 minutes. The following year, Richard Snow, a Scottish spinner at the Scottish Wool Centre in Aberfoyle, developed thyroid cancer and decided to raise money for Cancer Research. He initiated the ‘Back to Back Challenge’, a competition based on the 200 year old bet. There was enormous interest in the UK, not only for the clever promotion of wool, but also for raising funds for Cancer Research. 

Meanwhile, similar contests were being held in Australia with teams representing football clubs racing to spin and knit football team scarves from freshly shorn wool. But when Australian Wool Showcase member Wendy Dennis, took part in the 1994 Fourth World Congress on Coloured Sheep at York University, UK, she visited the Scottish Wool Centre. Here the seed was sown for a combined international competition to knit a sweater, rather than the coat woven in 1811! However, on the bicentenary of the original bet a team of 150 shearers, spinners, carders, weavers, dyers, cutters and tailors re-created the original coat made in 1811 in 14 hours, 44 minutes. One hour and 24 minutes slower than in 1811!

Our team - Kurrajong Handspun Crafts Inc.

Kurrajong Handspun Crafts Inc. first participated in the Back to Back in 2000 at Richmond Marketplace, where they completed their sweater in seven hours, 51 minutes (nine minutes short of the Challenge time limit of eight hours). They took up the Challenge again in 2005 at The Turpentine Tree in Kurrajong Heights where they have participated each year since, except 2013 when their participation had to be cancelled. 

The modern day Challenge is for a team of eight (one shearer and seven spinners and knitters) to shear a sheep, spin the wool, and knit a sweater in under eight hours. The current world record was set in 2004 by Pembroke Merriwa Jumbucks (Australia) when they finished their sweater in five hours 51 mins.  Kurrajong Handspun Crafts Inc. team’s best time was six hours, 34 mins in 2007, and their best position in the world was third, in 2009. This is the 20th year that the Challenge has been held worldwide. Teams from Canada, Japan, Czech Republic, New Zealand, South Africa, USA, UK, Netherlands/Germany and Australia have competed.

Kurrajong team is very proud to have held the Brigadoon Trophy for the most money raised worldwide for six years running (2007-2012), raising an incredible total of $50,000 for Cancer Council NSW. Come and support the team and help them retain the trophy for the most money raised at this year’s Back to Back, at the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden.