31 May 2024

Norsewood factory Norsewear a sign of close-knit community

From Country Life, 7:42 pm on 31 May 2024
Terence A'Hern, Norsewear's technician, started at the company straight out of school

Terence Ahern started at Norsewear straight out of school. Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

You don't have to step too far inside Norsewood's woollen sock factory to get a sense of just how close-knit this community is.

Generations of people from the same Norsewood families, neighbours and members of the volunteer fire brigade work alongside each other at Norsewear. 

The factory floor has even been known to come to a standstill during an emergency callout. 

The sock, glove and beanie manufacturer is the heart of the town and contributes greatly to the local community, according to one of its longest-serving employees, Terence "Tingey" Ahern.

"Norsewear is Norsewood and Norsewood is Norsewear. That's it." 

Ahern started as a 16-year-old and is now in his 46th year at the company, which began in 1963 when Ola Rian started making socks from his living room in Wellington.

According to Ahern, the Norwegian champion skier was looking at setting up his factory in Ohakune.

However, he settled on Norsewood, in the lee of the Ruahine range in southern Hawke's Bay, after experiencing the tiny town's Scandinavian heritage and its proximity to the mountains.

In the 1980s, Norsewear, under its original founder, was one of New Zealand's largest apparel companies, exporting 40 percent of its knitwear to Australia, Japan and the UK, according to new owner Tim Deane. 

Tim Deane

Norsewear owner Tim Deane. Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

The factory has been through several owners and two receiverships since then, partly due to the lifting of tarrifs protecting New Zealand's apparel industry, and cheaper clothes flooding into the market. 

Ahern was involved in a staff buyout in the early 2000s just to keep the firm afloat, but they had to pay royalties to a previous owner in order to use the brand.

It is that brand and the connection to wool and New Zealand farmers which has Deane excited. From a career in much bigger business - he was in global sales for Fonterra at one stage - he bought back the logo on acquiring Norsewear in 2022.

"I could see there was potentially a really big opportunity if we could tell the story."  

Instead of wool being sold in bales to head offshore or gather dust in woolsheds, he wanted to produce something of value from the raw product and make sure the value of the brand stayed at home.

It cost many farmers to shear their sheep as returns were so low, he said.

Wool's green credentials meant it tied in with many consumers' values, he said.

Norsewear makes a variety of socks, beanies and scarves, with wool mostly sourced from New Zealand

 Norsewear makes a variety of socks, beanies and scarves, with wool mostly sourced from New Zealand. Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

"We've been talking for years about value-add but basically this country specialises in selling commodities or ingredients and I thought wouldn't it be great to demonstrate you could actually build a brand from here, (by) regional manufacturing.

"I want my legacy to be taking Norsewear to the world and bringing the goodness back home."

Deane's 18-month plan was to directly source the wool from specific farms for the Norsewear brand. 

He said his idea would be tough to pull off, and may only help a few farmers, but it was a model for others to take up.

It would also require more collaboration, infrastructure and support for the industry. For example, the worsted yarn Norsewear used, made from mostly New Zealand-grown wool, had to be spun offshore because there were no such mills in New Zealand.

There also needed to be more investment in training for the textile industry, Deane said. 

Sharon Doreen has closed the toes on thousands of socks during her 33 years at Norsewear

 Sharon Doreen has closed the toes on thousands of socks during her 33 years at Norsewear. Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

"We're effectively training people ourselves." 

With increasing automation, Norsewear's workforce had shrunk from nearly 100 to 19, but was still mostly drawn from the small towns and settlements nearby.

Ormondville resident Sharon Doreen is 76 and has worked at Norsewear for 33 years.

She was running in a new machine to close the toes of the factory's famous farm-fleck sock when Country Life visited.

"We sell a lot of them, best socks you can buy."

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to Country Life

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)