Putting mohair on the world map

Frances van Hasselt Founder of Frances V.H Mohair Rugs (Picture: Supplied)
Frances van Hasselt Founder of Frances V.H Mohair Rugs (Picture: Supplied)

Growing up on an Angora goat farm in Prince Albert, Frances van Hasselt has always had a close affinity to mohair, and a vision of one day developing exceptional local products.

Today, Frances V.H Mohair Rugs is making international headlines with their handwoven rugs, priding themselves on a completely local supply chain and celebrating traditional craftsmanship in rural areas of the country. 

How did you get into the fashion industry?

After completing a postgraduate degree in international relations, I spent a few years working in Hong Kong.

During this time I was exposed to fashion on a scale I had never seen before.

Determined to pursue a career in the textile industry, I managed to get an internship at Li & Fung in their design and merchandising team.

After returning to South Africa I spent a short stint working in corporate fashion.

I realised that if I wanted to create an artisanal, mohair end-product with a completely local and sustainable supply chain, the answers were not going to be found in commercial retail structures.

Why did you start Frances V.H?

While working in the fashion industry, I became increasingly aware of how special mohair is. I began questioning why one of the world’s most ancient, exclusive and sustainable natural fibres was relatively unknown, particularly in SA, which produces the majority of the world’s mohair.

I became determined to produce a local product that highlights mohair’s unique qualities, ultimately resulting in the establishment of Frances V.H Mohair Rugs last year.

Where did you get capital to start the company and cover overheads?

The business has been self-funded. We manage to keep overheads low, since everything is sold online and made-to-order. Clients also have to put down a deposit on orders, which further reduces risks.

Funding would go a long way in helping our business grow and reach its full potential.

We are looking specifically to work with parties that share our sustainable business practices and complement the intricacies of a small and unique business.

Where do you get your design inspiration?

From the Karoo; the simple sophistication of its landscape, vegetation, and architecture informs the colour pallet and textures of our range.

Every step of the process is made by hand by a group of highly skilled women in the Eastern Cape.

]The process takes approximately four to six weeks, depending on the size of the rugs and the intricacy of the design.

Do you use mohair from the family farm? 

We use very specific mohair, which is best suited to rug making – mainly the courser, stronger mohair perfect for durability, yet soft underfoot.

My family farm specialises in high-end mohair used mainly for luxury apparel. My long-term plan is to diversify the Frances V.H brand, to include products made from mohair produced on the farm. 

How do you market your product?

As a start-up we have had to be creative in coming up with a cost-effective marketing plan.

Social media has been a successful platform to share our story, educate and explain the process and engage with a wider audience.

We’ve been fortunate in that the story and the product speaks for itself, which has lead to fantastic media coverage.

Mohair South Africa, a non-profit industry body that, along with other functions, markets and promotes mohair fibre, have been a fabulous support.

They have taken some of our rugs, along with a selection of South African mohair products, to various international trade shows and exhibitions.

This has proven to be excellent brand exposure and a great way of testing foreign markets.

I have also been fortunate enough to work on collaborations with a couple of brilliant brands that share our ethical values and views on sustainable products.

Collaborating with local handbag designer Thalia Startes, for example, led us to being part of the Zeitz MOCAA Gallery Store.

How competitive is the market in which you play?

The high-end lifestyle and décor market is extremely competitive. We are fortunate in that we offer a product that is so unique that it stands out from the rest.

There are very few local rug manufacturers in SA, and the market is big enough to support brands such as ours producing small volumes of custom-made pieces.

Who is your market?

Because of the nature of our business, we only work on custom-made orders.

Our client base is therefore a collection of decorators, designers and private clients who have an appreciation for natural, uniquely local, handcrafted, sustainable products.

They, in effect, are often involved in the design process and become part of our team, as we weave their orders together.

The international demand for our rugs is also growing, mainly from the US and Europe and we have recently sent our first order to China.

What has been one of your biggest challenges so far ?

When it comes to remote production our biggest challenges are logistical ones; mainly transport and access to basic connectivity, which makes communication via cellphones and emails difficult.

How has the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)’s recent claims of animal abuse in mohair production affected the local industry?

The organisation has structured information to suggest that the malpractice of a few isolated farming incidents provide a true reflection on SA’s entire Angora goats farming community.

This isn’t so, but we abhor any incidents of the mistreatment of animals and agree these allegations should be properly investigated.

SA produces more than half the world’s mohair and any boycott would have a devastating effect on the industry, the animals and the thousands of people it employs.

We believe that it is time for full supply chain visibility so that buyers can trace mohair fibre back to individual farms. This would also create value for producers and consumers.

What is the industry doing to address this issue?

The industry is in the process of further developing its animal welfare code, which would be verified by third parties as an international stamp of good, sustainable production practices.

Mohair SA issued a statement in which it said that they are “committed to the sustainability of the mohair industry, not only in South Africa, but globally”.

It is a member of Textile Exchange, a global non-profit that, according to Mohair SA, “identifies and shares best practices regarding farming, materials, processing, traceability and product end-of-life in order to reduce the textile industry’s impact on the environment”.

The truth is that Angora goats are farmed for their fibre (mohair). Our animal husbandry is not only humane and ethical, but it makes good business sense.

It is in our interest to see mohair flourish; this is not possible without healthy animals.

What are your growth plans for the business?

I hope to set up a production facility on our farm in Prince Albert.

This will serve as a place where people can see the entire process, from the land, the goats and all the practices and preparing that goes into creating a rug.

We aim to employ skilled artisans in the area and to develop a training facility whereby we preserve and ensure the continuation of traditional craftsmanship.

The vision is to develop a range of mohair products to create an entirely integrated and vertical supply chain; from farm to product.

My hope is that SA becomes synonymous with mohair; not only for producing the top mohair in the world but also for outstanding end products.

What has been the best business advice you have received so far?

Put in the hours, do the research, actively seek advice in areas you don’t understand or are weak in and then ‘start’. I find that overanalysing things in the fear that we don’t have all the answers can become paralysing. For me, starting and seeing where that led to proved to be exactly the right thing to do at the right time.

This article originally appeared in the 13 September edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here or subscribe to our newsletter here.
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