Wool bales stencils exhibition

The 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.


Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga staff have been working with Dr Annette O’Sullivan, from Massey University School of Design, who undertook the research, design, and photography for the wool bales stencils project to bring it to the Wairarapa in early Spring and then to have the exhibition on display during Taranaki Heritage Month in October. The exhibition was first launched at Totara Estate in November 2020.

According to Dr O’Sullivan, “Many Kiwis will be familiar with stencil letters used by sheep farmers to mark their wool bales when they sent their product to British wool sales. 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."

“The 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,” says Dr O’Sullivan.  

Dr O’Sullivan has been touring sheep stations recently in anticipation of a book she is producing on heritage wool sheds in New Zealand. She recently met with David Watt, Senior Outreach Advisor Regional Services, Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga, and with Joseph Gillard, Chair Heritage Wairarapa and Deputy Chair of Cobblestones Museum, Greytown. Together they are planning an exhibition of the wool bales stencils at Cobblestones from 10 September this year, followed by taking it for display during Taranaki Heritage Month in October.

The Secret Lives of Stencils tells the story of New Zealand branding and identity

Look out for details of these events shortly once finalised. Former long serving South Taranaki Mayor and heritage advocate, Ross Dunlop, has agreed to have the exhibition at his farm woolshed, west of Hawera, around Labour Weekend, and for it to be also on public display at Aotea Utanganui-The Museum of South Taranaki at Patea.

“We are delighted to be working with Annette and with the regional heritage organisations in the Wairarapa and Taranaki areas to bring this important story to the public and to gather support around the messages being taken across the country,” says David.   

Heritage New Zealand also has plans to work with Annette and local heritage interests to take the stencils exhibition to Hawkes Bay early in 2023.

The Trustees of Cobblestones Museum in Greytown are looking forward to having this exhibition feature in their Spring programme. This fits very well with the extensive collection of farming equipment and six heritage listed early buildings,” says David.

David Watt