Fleecing out new uses for mohair

2009-11-13 13:21

MOHAIR’S reputation – as in the thing your Aunty Myrtle used to knit scratchy socks and blankets with – is so firmly entrenched that this perception was the general consensus among the city-slickers not too impressed by my jaunt to the Karoo for the first International Mohair Summit.

Mohair’s seemingly unshakable uncool reputation is worlds – and a couple of centuries – away from the story of how Angora goats first came to the tip of Africa. This tale is one of the first surprises to unfold as the bus transporting a sizeable chunk of Mzansi’s design and fashion leaders to Graaff Reinette hurtled down the R75 roadway.

The story of mohair in South Africa began with an unexpected pregnancy in 1838 when the Sultan of Turkey sent twelve neutered rams and one ewe to a colonial official in the Eastern Cape. The neutered rams were intentional; the Sultan was safeguarding the Turkish mohair industry. But unbeknownst to him the ewe was pregnant and gave birth to a kid at sea. And thus began the story of mohair in South Africa.

Fast-forward 171 years and despite the Sultan’s best efforts, South Africa is now the global leader in mohair production, producing not only the biggest quantity, but also the finest quality.

Fifty-four percent of the world’s mohair is produced in the Eastern Cape. And even mohair not produced in South Africa gets shipped to Port Elizabeth – sometimes from as far afield as Texas – for washing, combing, sorting and bailing, then it gets re-exported.

The five-day summit, which brought together mohair growers, buyers, manufacturers, designers and interior decorators from across the world was Mohair South Africa’s attempt to spread the gospel of the golden thread.

“We want to introduce a new look and move away from the old associations people make between mohair, floppy blankets and their grandmothers,” said Jackie Gant, marketing manager for Mohair SA.

And the man tasked with dragging mohair out of the dark ages of Aunty Myrtle’s scratchy soc Greeff, a design consultant and product developer based in Port Elizabeth.

Working with eight established mohair producers, Greeff produced a houseware range entirely out of mohair to show its potential utility for a broader range of goods.

“It’s a mind-shift,” says Greeff, “Farmers are by nature very conservative people. And mohair producers were a bit stuck in the old mode of blankets, socks and scarves.”

Given a brief to use the landscape and plants of the Karoo, Greeff created a lamp inspired by the cactus-like vingerpols plant, indigenous to the region; a prickly pear-inspired carpet; a moss-inspired blanket; and wall tiles inspired by aloe. All out of mohair.
But it wasn’t all fluffy stuff. Mohair production is fiercely competitive and Angora farmers from across the Eastern Cape had come to show their wares and see how they measured up.

Angora goats can give black women a run for their money when it comes to the politics of hair. Angora is a high-maintenance breed because everything depends on the quality of their fleece. They are judged against an exceptionally strict standard of length, lustre and the crimp or weave of the hair.

Roland du Toit, a farmer from Beaufort West, says: “We’re looking at the quality of the hair, the length and style and character of the mohair and evenness of fleece.

“We look at neck, middle section and back. The ideal is to get the fleece as even as possible. We look at the head of the animal. The softness is important. People who buy mohair are very strict about kemp factor in the hair, that’s a sharp fibre that doesn’t take colour and when you do the weaving it stands out.”

So Angora farmers go to great lengths to ensure that their goats are not driven along dusty tracks that have not been dampened, that they are not herded into a veld that is wet with dew and to keep the animals in clean camps until they are ready for shearing.

Mohair might be the hidden jewel of the South African economy, but finding a black Angora farmer in this woolly wingding was hard. Several of the white farmers assured me that there were increasing numbers of black farmers, but they were hard to track down.

Sweet Nantoe and Ryno Mapoe of the farm Grootvlei are first-generation farmers and new to the industry. They started farming three years ago and now breed just under 200 Angoras on 326 hectares of municipal land. Theirs is one of only two black-run farms in their area.

“We bought our own goats and started ourselves,” says Mapoe.

“When I was in school it was my dream to be a farmer,” says Nantoe. “But I won’t stop at being an emergent farmer. I want to be independent and have my own farm. That’s where I want to be in five years time.” His short-term goal is to go home with a good price for his mohair.

Black mohair farmers and aloe wall tiles, mohair has come a long way.
Aunty Myrtle would be delighted. 

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