South Africa’s mohair mojo

15 May 2007

Few could have foreseen, when a small group of travel-weary Angora goats from Turkey clattered off a ship in Port Elizabeth in 1838, that they would spawn a South African mohair industry that would dominate world production.

Especially considering that the rams in this first group had all been neutered by Turkish exporters intent on safeguarding their industry.

Go to Eastern Cape Madiba Action As fate would have it, one of the ewes was pregnant when she boarded the ship and gave birth to a ram kid on the sea voyage. It was from these two – imported to South Africa via India by former British officer Colonel John Henderson – that South African flocks were descended.

From Cinderella to Princess
Today South Africa is recognised as the producer of the highest quality mohair in the world. Mohair South Africa leads the global mohair market and Port Elizabeth, in Nelson Mandela Bay, is the unofficial capital of the global mohair industry.

South Africa’s fledgling mohair industry of the 1800s – kick-started in Caledon but expanded in the Eastern Cape – was boosted by selective breeding and a second importation of fresh blood 15 years after the first goats arrived.

“The breed adapted so well to the climate and vegetation of the Eastern Cape and . fell into such capable hands, that South Africa became the undisputed leader in the mohair world,” writes David Uys in his book Cinderella to Princess.

Mohair South Africa today leads the global mohair market with a 58% share of world production. Some 850 000 goats producing 3.6-million kilograms of mohair generated R210-million in 2005, according to figures released by Mohair SA general manager Frans Loots.

World mohair capital
And Eastern Cape districts account for roughly 90% of South Africa’s total production.

“You could say Port Elizabeth in Nelson Mandela Bay is the capital of the global mohair industry,” says Mohair SA financial manager Deon Saayman. “All mohair produced in South Africa and Lesotho comes to Port Elizabeth for washing, combing, sorting, baling and auction. Mohair even gets sent here from Texas for processing and is re-exported.”

Mohair SA’s Review 2005 manual puts South Africa a full 45% ahead of its biggest production rival, the US (13% of world production). They are followed by Lesotho (10% share of world production), Turkey and Argentina (both with a 5% share), Australia (3%), New Zealand (2%) and “other” (4%).

Figures show that South African production peaked in the 1980s at about 12-million kilograms, later dropped and has today stabilised in the range of 3.5- to 4-million kilograms.

The ‘diamond fibre’
“Mohair has all the desirable qualities of natural fibres,” says Saayman. “It is silky, durable and dyes exceptionally well.”

Dubbed the “diamond fibre”, it is known for its ability to absorb humidity and resist creasing.

“Loads of international brand names and fashion houses use mohair products in their ranges,” Saayman says. “They include Ermenegildo Zegna, a high-fashion Italian clothing company with retail outlets in Europe, America and Asia. In South Africa, mohair end products tend to feed the tourism and retail industry with scarves, blankets, throws and jerseys.”

Mohair production starts with the grower (farmer) and moves through the broker, processor and weaver to the manufacturer, Loots explains.

In South Africa, mohair is largely handled up to the washing and combing stage (processor). “A total of 95% of SA production is exported in raw or semi-processed form,” Loots says. “Semi-processed mohair is exported to all destinations, including Europe, the UK and the Far East.”

This article was first published in Eastern Cape Madiba Action, winter 2007 edition. Republished here with kind permission of the author.