Matangi Station

April 2023

Super fine merino wool from Matangi Station in Central Otago.

Sheep farmer John Sanders grows superior quality super fine merino wool at Matangi Station in Central Otago and is a proud supplier to two leading Italian textile companies recognised internationally for their manufacture of high-quality fabrics, including super fine merino material for business suiting. 


Matangi Station, lies high in the hills above Alexandra in Central Otago. It has been owned by the Sanders family for a century. Their super fine merino wool is highly sought after, including by renowned Italian textile manufacturers such as Reda or Loro Piana, that purchase most of the station’s 40,000kg annual clip.  


Chances are the fabric of the high-quality business suit being worn on Madison Avenue on a hot and humid New York summer day, began its journey in the Otago high country. The wool produced on the Matangi Station provides the raw material for the suits, which remain impeccable and comfortable - despite New York’s sticky humidity. Sophisticated and crafted out of breathable merino fabric, suits made from these fabrics are comfortable to wear, do not crease and follow body movements naturally. 


Matangi Station is vast. The 11,585ha property stretches 27km from the Alexandra town boundary to the tussock grasslands and rocky outcrops of the Manorburn Plateau, up to 1189m above sea level. It is big country, where traditional horse-back mustering was replaced by farm bikes that have now largely given way to drones - saving time and fuel, and reducing stress on animals. 


In 2023 the Sanders family celebrate custodianship of this special place for one hundred years. John is the third generation of Sanders to farm here, his grandfather having bought the property in 1923, raising the funds working as a rabbiter in the area after ditching his small grocery shop in Alexandra. John’s grandfather’s rabbiting experience stood him in good stead as Matangi, like much of Otago and Southland at the time, was over-run with rabbits. He disposed of about 112,000 of them during his first year at Matangi. Two decades ago, John’s son Brett joined him on the land, and now a second son, Mark, works alongside them. 


In winter, temperatures drop well below freezing while in the summer months there are 30C-plus days of dry heat. Average annual rainfall is 320mm, although there have been years when it has barely reached 175mm. 


Merino sheep thrive in these conditions. And Matangi Station runs over 8,000 head, producing about 40,000kgs of super fine spinners’ quality wool. It carries a marque of excellence as a top New Zealand fibre, tops wool sale prices internationally as it is highly sought after by the Italian textile companies that purchase much of the station’s annual clip.  


John says the passion for merino wool runs through the entire Sanders family. “Merino is incredible to wear. It feels soft and luxurious against the skin. Its breathability helps regulate the body’s temperature to keep you cool in summer and warm in winter. Consumers world-wide are embracing this natural fibre for all sorts of applications from haute couture fashion on the runways of Europe, military uniforms, sportswear, and performance wear for the likes of astronauts.” 


He says Matangi Station has established long-term wool contracts with buyers, adding “we strive for excellence in each fleece we grow to ensure we produce what buyers want”. 


John takes pride in classing the clip himself, having classed Matangi wool most of his life. It is second nature to him and a passion he has passed on to his son Brett. 


The merino sheep at Matangi can be traced back to the first merinos imported to Otago from Australia by the Shennan brothers in the 1860s, as well as to animals from the King of Prussia’s stud, which helped to improve those early flocks. The stud was established in 1940.


“Our breeding criteria is to produce a large framed sheep with bright, soft wool,” says John.

“Important traits in the selection of our sheep include the conformation of the animal along with the staple length of the wool, even crimp and its weight. “Only the most impressive rams with these criteria become sires.” 


Matangi sells its rams to merino breeders and farmers throughout Otago and Southland and has an on-farm sale each year at the end of February to sell its extras. John says genetic records have been kept since the 1940s with electronic identification (eID) tags brought in four years ago. “We have 17 different family groups in our stud and the introduction of eID has enabled us to accurately gather and store data about each animal, streamlining record keeping including traceability.”


Matangi Station is ZQRX certified by the New Zealand Merino Company as an ethical producer of quality merino wool that cares for its animals and environment and is socially responsible.  “Being part of ZQRX provides a great platform for us to benchmark ourselves,” says John. “As custodians of this land we are on a journey to ensure we do the best for the generations to come. 


“Many wildlife species, including birds, live here and keep an eye on us while we work. Becoming pest free is something we are striving for. We’re part of ongoing efforts to control wilding pine and we’ve planted more than 10,000 trees here.”


With the lean, succulent and fine-grained merino meat becoming increasingly popular, Matangi is now exploring a new relationship to supply meat, having in the past sent excess animals to the works. 


Matangi Station is also working towards becoming carbon neutral, and the Sanders regularly host local schools and groups so they can explore the wild places on the station, including the Journeys group which encourages young girls to connect by adventuring in the outdoors.