We take a look at the Merino wool and Mohair fibre industry in South Africa
By Zayikah Ebrahim
Agriculture isn’t only about growing fruit and vegetable crops and rearing animals to provide the world’s population with food. Instead, it includes raising livestock and preparing animal products, such as fabrics, for people to use. For example, cotton, wool, (animal) fibre and leather are all agricultural products.
Sheep and goats are believed to have been domesticated after dogs as far back as 7500 BCE, with breeding for woolly sheep beginning around 6000 BCE. Today, farming merino sheep for their wool and Angora goats for their lustrous mohair fibre is a huge true success story within South African agriculture.
THE MERINO WOOL INDUSTRY
The merino, one of the most important breeds of sheep in the world, accounts for a large percentage of the globe’s sheep population. Merino wool was first introduced in Spain, but in the 1800s, the merino wool industry shifted to mainly Germany, the US and Australia. Currently, however, merino sheep are raised across the world, and its wool is produced by several countries, such as New Zealand, Argentina and SA.
Merino wool is hard to cut through, making it very durable. Studies have shown that merino wool can bend 32 000 times before breaking, compared to cotton at 3 000 times. It also dries faster than cotton and can withstand extreme environments, such as high heat. Because of this, in 2016, the BBC reported that a British company started producing clothing from merino to be worn by NASA’s astronauts!
Merino sheep must be cut, known as ‘shearing’, at least once a year. If this isn’t done and their wool is overgrown, it can cause heat stress and even blindness. An average merino wether (a mature male that is used only for wool production) can produce up to 4.5 kg of wool each year!
Records suggest that the first specimens of merino sheep arrived in SA in 1789. However, the first person to successfully commercialise merino farming in SA was Michiel van Breda, notes Farmer’s Weekly. He began farming merino in 1817 on the historical Zoetendals Vallei farm, situated in the Overberg near Cape L’Agulhas. Today, merino farming is the backbone of many farming businesses in SA.
Merino South Africa is the representative body of all merino farmers and stud breeders in the country. It was established in 1937, and in 2014 said that merino was the largest sheep breed in SA, with about 13 million sheep and 2 500 farmers at the time. Most merino farmers receive about 40% of their income from wool production and the rest from meat.
THE MOHAIR INDUSTRY AND SA’S STRONG INFLUENCE
Mohair has become one of the world’s best-quality luxury fibres, so much so that it’s commonly called the ‘diamond fibre’. Mohair is made from the hair of the Angora goat, which are believed to have evolved into its current form in Tibet, but over time, migrated to Turkey. Today, a handful of countries are the top producers of mohair, including SA, Argentina and the US.
The fleece of an Angora goat is a lot softer than a sheep’s wool and it has a noticeable sheen. Since it is considered a luxury textile, clothing items made entirely from mohair are generally more expensive than those made from other types of yarn. The Angora goat’s hair needs to be sheared twice a year, as it grows 12-15 centimetres every six months.
Some of the mohair’s unique properties that makes it even more desirable are that its fibre is almost non-flammable, is extremely strong, and resists stretching during wear. Their prized fibre used to create so many things, from sweaters and scarves to winter hats, coats and carpets.
South Africa is a world leader in both mohair fibre production. By 2020, the country was said to produce just over 50% of the world’s mohair, while around 90% of it is exported internationally: Europe, Italy, China and the UK are the biggest markets for local manufacturers.
Hinterveld Mohair, which is based in Uitenhage, the Eastern Cape, exports as many as 50 000 mohair blankets per year, mainly to Europe. They are a weaving mill that makes fabric from mohair fibre (as well as merino wool). The biggest mohair sale of 2022 took place on 22 March, where a whopping 165 677.60 kg of the luxury fibre was on sale!
Most of SA’s Angora goats are farmed in the Karoo area of the Eastern Cape, with Gqeberha considered the mohair capital of the world. Around 10% comes from the Western Cape and the Northern Cape, while Lesotho is the second biggest producer. Mohair South Africa, the industry body committed to ethical mohair production in SA, markets and promotes the fibre around the world. They set up a trust a few years ago hoping to attract farmers into mohair production.
In 2020, Mohair SA partnered with Textile Exchange, a global non-profit, and launched the Responsible Mohair Standard (RMS), which aims to ensure the mohair industry is ethical, and that the goats are humanely treated, healthy and well cared for. Mohair SA also set up Mohair Empowerment Trust, a nonprofit organisation focused on partnering with emerging black South African farmers, and uplifting them to give them financial independence and become commercial Angora farmers in SA.
Marco Coetzee, general manager at Mohair South Africa, told Science Stars that one of the benefits of farming with Angora goats compared to sheep is that you get cash flow twice a year for their fibre, since they need to be sheared twice a year, whereas sheep only get sheared once a year. He also said that any person can farm with Angora goats. While there is an RMS in place for the mohair industry, it’s not compulsory for a farmer to comply with that standard. “The standard basically just makes the specific farmer’s access to the market bigger,” said
Coetzee. “There’s a big demand for mohair that complies to that standard, but the mohair that doesn’t comply with that standard also currently sells, so it’s not like there’s a restrictive barrier to individual access to the market.”
Angora wool comes from rabbits, while mohair comes from Angora goats – a fun fact worth knowingand that will avoid confusion!