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Follow the wool value chain journey from farm to fibre

by | May 31, 2024

Fashion is an inherently interconnected industry, supporting many livelihoods and expanding across several different fields. Fashion production has the capacity to bring our society closer to a kinder, more sustainable way of living in harmony with nature. And so, Cape Wools SA is committed to this vision for the fashion industry with one of the key materials in the production of garments: wool fibre. South Africa is the world’s largest of supplier of sustainably certified merino wool. Merino wool is derived from the fleece of a merino sheep, which is the main source of wool in the country.

Deon Saayman, CEO of Cape Wools SA, photographs a herd of sheep

“Wool is one of South Africa’s most abundant and sustainable natural fibres and our work aims to highlight that as an important part of an interconnected textile industry,” says Deon Saayman, CEO of Cape Wools SA.

Cape Wools SA is the official representative of South Africa’s wool industry, supporting the whole value chain from shearers and farmers through to the buyers and processors, as well as the certification of wool. A core aim of the organisation is to support the growth of local wool production.

In June last year, Twyg was invited by Cape Wools SA to visit the different stages of wool production in the Eastern Cape.

Matthew van Lingen explains sheep farming to Maxwell Boko and Mmuso Potsane on Dwarsvlei Farm in Middelburg, South Africa

Starting at the very beginning of the wool production value chain, we began with a visit to the Dwarsvlei farm in Middelburg, where merino sheep are farmed. Treading through the sheep farm’s vast landscape, with the chilly air of the Karoo, farmer Matthew van Lingen walked us through the process of regenerative wool farming and the struggles of maintaining their farm during the drought. Through three generations of management, the Dwarsvlei farm has fostered a symbiotic relationship between the land and the animals.

Click here to buy tickets for Karoo Winter Wool Festival

Thereafter, we left the quiet escape of the Karoo and returned to Gqeberha, where we were taken on a tour around the wool sampling centre. After shearing seasons – when sheep are shorn – bales of wool from several farms across the Eastern Cape are sent to the brokerages where samples are collected and sent to a wool testing bureau.

Samples of wool are tested for strength before auctioned to international markets

At the Wool Testing Bureau of South Africa, which is the only recognised testing house by the International Wool Textile Organization (IWTO) on the continent, we were walked through the intricate process of testing the bales of wool to assess the quality of the clip. Samples of wool from each bale undergo a series of tests to check for the fineness, strength of the fibres and quantity of vegetable matter in the wool, which is then used to determine the value of the clip.

After the wool samples are tested, the information is given to agents who represent prospective buyers who then bid on the wool. Wool grown across the Eastern Cape is sold to both local and international buyers.

Maxwell Boko and Mmuso Potsane walk through the graded wool before it is auctioned

Despite being one of the world’s leading producers of sustainably certified wool, South Africa has few local textile mills, meaning much of the wool produced in the country gets exported, mainly to China, The Czech Republic, Egypt and parts of Europe, where the fibres are processed into fabrics.

However, there are a few textile weaving and knitting mills in South Africa that produce fabrics from locally-sourced natural fibres.

One such place is the textile mill Hinterveld in Uitenhage, which was our last stop to complete the wool value chain. Before the wool reaches Hinterveld, though, the raw wool fibre undergoes a meticulous process off-shore where it is cleaned, combed and then separated into thick rope-like slivers called tops or a wool bump. Back in South Africa this wool is then spun into yarn and dyed before it is woven on looms to create a range of fabrics that are sold to factories to be cut and sewn into the garments we find in the stores.

 Cape Wools SA exhibited processed wool at the Africa Textile Talks 2023 in Cape Town

Cape Wools SA demonstrated different stages of the wool value chain at Africa Textile Talks last year. They showcased raw unprocessed wool, washed wool and wool top, which is the longer length fibres that can be used for garments, as well as locally produced yarn.

To encourage education around textiles as the foundation of fashion production and as a means of culture and a carrier of history, Twyg, along with Imiloa Collective, hosted the third annual Africa Textile Talks at Workshop 17 in August last year for the first in-person event that was combined with an exhibition of textiles from across the continent, presentations, and panel discussions from leading organisations and persons in the industry. The next Africa Textile Talks will take place on 15 August at Workshop 17, the V&A Waterfront.

“We want to bring awareness to the world-class resources we produce right here in our own country,” explains Deon. “By making wool a choice embedded in design, we are able to create greater support for local industries, preserve traditional crafts and skills associated with wool production, and produce in harmony with nature.”


  • Credits: Photographs by The Knox except the final one which is by The Dollie House
  • The Karoo Winter Wool Festival takes place from 14 to 16 June 2024. Find out more on their website.
  • The Africa Textiles Talks 2024 will take place on 15 August 2024. Follow us on Instagram for news.
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