The Hinterveld Mill Tour
The softness and warmth typical of mohair products is at odds with the grimy mechanics of their manufacture, but the combination of the two makes for a fascinating experience, as I discovered on a recent tour of Hinterveld mohair weavers and distributors.
Hinterveld is situated in Uitenhage, just a short drive from Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. A Hinterveld Mill Tour is a mix of the gritty, grubby reality of farming and shearing sheep and goats for their pelts, and the transformation of these pelts into luxury products that are sought after by high-end European labels. The tour takes visitors through three factories, culminating in a stop at the factory shop, where mohair and wool blankets, scarves, hand knitting yarns and other products sell at remarkably good prices.
The dying and weaving of these threads contains the history of an industry.
Processing mohair and merino wool is a strangely engaging process, a sensory experience that begins with the raw, unwashed, uncombed hair and wool, just in from the farm. Thousands of Angora goats are raised in South Africa to supply the world market with this unique natural fibre – in fact, South Africa produces about half the world’s mohair – but the greasy bales are about as far removed from the soft, warm whisper of the finished product as you can imagine.
As we watched tonnes of wool being fed through giant washing and combing machines, marketing manager Jackie Gant explained that South Africa has a long association with mohair. The valuable little goats originally come from the mountains of Tibet, and raw mohair was exported from Turkey to England in the early 1800s. The first shipment of these animals came to South Africa from Turkey when a consignment of 12 rams and one ewe arrived in 1838.
The earliest Angora flock in the Jansenville district was established from stock imported by William Cary Hobson in 1871. Today, the majority of local mohair is produced in the Eastern Cape in Jansenville and the surrounding districts.
According to Jackie, 'Hinterveld' literally means 'the land behind', and refers to the vast, dry plains behind the Southern Cape escarpment, where Angora goats thrive.The tones and colours of this barren, but beautiful, landscape are reflected in many of Hinterveld’s woven products. As Jackie explained, designers like Laduma Ngxokolo and stylist and artist Tracy Lee Lynch have collaborated with Hinterveld to create a range of mohair products that reference the area’s culture and express it with contemporary elegance.
Generally, mohair is shorn from the goats twice a year, with each animal producing about 5kg to 8kg of mohair annually. Different grades of mohair are used for different products, which include scarves, hats, suits, sweaters, coats, socks and home furnishings. The fibre from the baby goats, called ‘kid mohair’ is the softest, while fibres from mature goats are used to produce things like rugs and carpets. As mohair is warm and lightweight, it is often blended with wool. It also has a particular shine to it and absorbs dyes exceptionally well.
Watching the experienced and friendly team of workers busy in the spinning and weaving mills was mesmerising. It was also warm and loud, but conversation wasn't really necessary as we watched the thick ropes of silky smooth fibre become fine threads of colour that danced together on the loom, ending up as wearable works of art rooted in another continent and century – yet now so South African and modern.
The dying and weaving of these threads contains the history of an industry – the story of how the goats arrived in South Africa; the trials and successes of farmers; the hard work of the labourers and the shearers; and the characteristics of the landscape with its extremes of heat and cold, its dryness and its innate beauty.
It was hard to reconcile the piles of raw wool and mohair I saw at the start of the tour with the earthy tones, rich blues, vibrant reds, pinks and mauves that formed soft piles of indulgence in the factory shop. I got myself a beautiful scarf, which I'm going to enjoy wearing even more now that I know how it was made. I also picked up a number of gifts for friends who will appreciate knowing where they came from and the effort that went into creating them.
I visited Hinterveld on a trip hosted by Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism as part of a group of bloggers. You can follow our Twitter and Instagram posts under the hashtag '#PErocks'.