The story of the world’s finest mohair begins among the bossies of the veld and ends in the fashion capitals of the world. Discover the Karoo’s golden fleece…
Words: Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais
Pictures: Chris Marais and Mohair South Africa
It’s deep winter in the Karoo, so when you stop at a padstal in these parts you tend to buy something hot, something to fill your belly and something to warm your travelling toes. For hot, read ‘coffee’, for filling the belly read ‘biltong’ and for those chilly toes, read ‘mohair socks’. What about that lightweight throw for the shoulders?
And although it sounds a little Agatha Christie, those small-size mohair blankets on sale are also just the ticket for tucking around the knees at the fireside when the snows are falling outside and the oxtail stew is bubbling away in the kitchen.
Mohair products from the deep Karoo are made from the magical fleece of the Angora goat, whose ancestors hail from the roof of the world: Tibet. And what do the Karoo and Tibet have in common? Harsh weather conditions, one would say. Winter makes its presence well known in both parts of the world.
No one can tell us precisely what the Tibetans did with their goats, but the breed did finally make its way down to Turkey, where the Anatolians created great things from what came to be known as ‘the diamond fibre’. Europe cottoned on to mohair and then, in 1838, it was South Africa’s turn.
The Karoo mohair industry did not have an auspicious start, however, thanks to the wiles and machinations of the Sultan of Turkey, who was keen on maintaining a local monopoly. Sultan Mahmud II was approached by one Colonel John Henderson, a former British Army officer now looking to expand the mohair business into South Africa. The Sultan let him have a start-up herd of 13 goats.
“Why didn’t the Sultan just refuse the Colonel’s request?” we hear you say. Well, the dusty halls of history books, old manuscripts and Google have revealed no answer to that so far. Perhaps the Sultan was just being mischievous, because he sent Col Henderson 12 neutered rams and one rather shaggy nanny goat.
But it so happened that the nanny was already pregnant, and she gave birth (in the boat on the way to South Africa) to the father of the Karoo nation of Angora goats. And, of course, what was to become a multi-million rand industry.
South Africa takes care of more than 60 per cent of the world trade in mohair – and most of that comes from the eastern Karoo. Again, we’re not exactly sure what the old Sultan had to say about this, but we can imagine the historical thought-bubble full of Turkish expletives.
As luck would have it, the eastern Karoo is the perfect place for such a goat. The wide variety of bossies and thorn trees, interspersed with grasses, are excellent browse for them. The dry, cold winters cut down on diseases and parasites.
But being an Angora goat farmer requires nerves of steel and a weather eye for a dropping barometer. These goats are vulnerable to a combination of chill and wind or rain, especially within six weeks after shearing. The University of Stellenbosch has recently identified a specific gene in Angoras that makes them susceptible to chill.
That’s why most farmers have sheds or shelters dotted around their farms so that they can be driven indoors when the weatherman starts warning of approaching cold fronts. An innovative farmer from Aberdeen, Arno de Jager has even designed a mobile shed to drive his shed to the shorn goats when the weather becomes a threat.
“Actually, you can train them to go into the sheds quite easily,” says Billy Colborne of Kilborne farm near Willowmore. He is one of the top producers and founders of Cape Mohair & Wool (CMW). “You just use some mielies to entice them in.”
Sit down with any Angora goat farmer and you’ll hear stories of slipping and sliding on snow-slicked winter farm roads to check on goat herds. They’ll tell you about times when the whole kitchen was filled with bleating goats clustered around the gentle heat of an Aga stove.
Most Angora goat farmers focus largely on rearing and caring for livestock, shearing them and sending the bales of sorted mohair to Port Elizabeth where it is auctioned to the highest bidders, most of it through CMW, the biggest mohair broker in the world.
But one, Paul Michau of Limebank farm near Cradock, decided he wanted to understand where the bales went, who used them and what they really needed. He wanted to know the mohair industry from the inside out.
In the nineties, he set off on a voyage of discovery. Over twelve years, he travelled to Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Belgium and England, talking to designers, textile experts, weavers, spinners, washers, retailers and marketers. “So there I am, a raw Karoo farmer, talking to these people about lustre, yarn count and handle.”
Michau learnt about the entire cycle, from the goat in the veld all the way to the desirable Italian cardigan or Japanese mohair suit at the end of it all. He became friends with ‘mohair artist’ Sato Seni of Tokyo who spins and weaves snug mohair cardigans so light and insubstantial they can be crushed into something the size of a petite lady’s fist.
He found a growing interest in this sustainable and environmentally friendly fibre. He also realised that the top designers wanted traceability to source the finest mohair and the most consistent quality. And that’s how Michau came to establish the Camdeboo Mohair brand, named for that mysterious and borderless region near Graaff-Reinet.
“Camdeboo Mohair started with 92 producer members and barely one ton of the finest kid mohair.”
It was a gamble that paid off. If you walk into one of those prestigious Alfred Dunhill emporiums in London – which look like a cross between a duke’s country home and a gentleman’s club – you’ll find that the Dunhill mohair blazers have a Camdeboo label on the inside pocket, in prime position over the heart.
When Michelle Obama attended her husband’s first presidential inauguration, she was wearing a cardigan designed by Nina Ricci and made from Camdeboo Mohair.
Mohair has long been used for blankets but Michau now has a new product – mohair duvets covered in fine percale. The duvets are light, warm, breathable, less expensive than down, washable, which has meant they’re in high demand for decor shops, luxury guest lodges, boats and airlines around the world.
Backing the whole industry is a lively and effective marketing organisation called Mohair South Africa. According to Mohair News editor Robyn Rütters, knitting is the fastest rising trend when it comes to the luxury fibre trade. In North America alone, there are 56 million knitters. “It really is a huge craze. It’s authentic, useful, therapeutic. Tapestry too, for the same reasons, and also because it could become pieces of art.”
Mohair SA was also involved in that amazing 67 Blankets for Mandela project which turned out to be the largest blanket in the world. All three square kilometres of hand-knitted blankets were laid at the feet of Nelson Mandela’s statue and will soon be in the Guinness Book of Records.
Did You Know?
- Every year, South Africa supplies international and local markets with around 2.5 million kilograms, or 53 per cent of the world’s mohair.
- Karoo mohair is acknowledged as the finest in the world.
- There are around 900 000 Angora goats in South Africa, the vast majority in the Eastern Cape Karoo.
- The second biggest mohair clip in the world comes from Lesotho. Most of it goes to making velvet and velour. These fabrics are often used by the kilometre to decorate cruise ships, yachts and opera houses. They’re even used in the making of snow shoes.
- Human hair grows at about 1cm a month. Angora goat hair grows at more than double that rate.
- An average of 3.5kg of fine, lustrous mohair is shorn from each adult Angora goat every year (800 grams from kids).
- Before being shorn, and always on a warm day, Angora goats are washed in mohair shampoo to remove the worst of the dirt and dust.
- Most shearing of Angora goats is with handshears, which don’t cut as close as electric shears.
- Farming with Angora goats employs 20 000 people. This figure excludes the thousands of others working in factories (mostly around Port Elizabeth) and smaller cottage industries producing or selling mohair yarn, blankets, mats, shawls and scarves, socks, jerseys.
- Angora leather, long thought to be too porous for use, is now being used for saddles, saddle blankets and handbags.
- Nearly 70 per cent of goat shearers are from Lesotho. The Government is trying to train local South Africans to replace them.