Did you know that South Africa is the second-largest exporter of apparel wool and the largest mohair producer in the world?
The first Merino sheep arrived at the Cape in 1789. Now, South Africa is home to an estimated 8 000 commercial wool farmers and over 40 000 start-up and communal wool farmers who produce close to 50 million kg of wool, valued at around R6 billion, every year.
According to the National Wool Growers Association (NWGA), South Africa produces 2-3% of the wool globally and about 12% of the world’s apparel wool. South African wool is known for its high quality, making it ideal for creating durable, timeless clothing.
There is a growing movement to return clothing production to South African shores, championed by many small businesses, a government masterplan and the large retailers including Mr Price Group and The Foschini Group. A thriving wool industry could be the starting point for reviving our once-prosperous local textile economy. The key to this revived industry being sustainable will be to make sure that it centres on regenerative farming and sustainable practices.
Wool as a key eco-friendly fibre
In South Africa, mohair (from Angora goats), merino, and alpaca wool are all produced locally. Wool is grown all year round on the backs of sheep that merely require water, air, sunshine, and vegetation to thrive.
Wool is made from keratin, the same protein substance as human hair. Like human hair, wool readily grows on sheep and can be shorn every 8-9 months. Once shorn, it grows back with no harm to the sheep – a truly regenerative and renewable fibre.
It is also biodegradable when buried in soil, unlike synthetic fibres that disintegrate into plastic microfibres that pollute our land and water systems. And, as recycling becomes more popular as an end-of-life solution in the circular textile industry, wool is well suited to recycling and re-use. Nothing in the wool industry goes to waste. Wool that is not used in the fashion industry is used for insulation and carpeting.
Aside from being an eco-friendly fibre, wool is versatile and has many benefits for the wearer and those looking to curate a more sustainable wardrobe too:
- Wool is naturally breathable and an effective insulator. It can absorb large quantities of moisture which then evaporates.
- Wool has a unique ability to react to changes in the body’s temperature. This means that it keeps you cool in summer and warm in winter, making it perfect for trans-seasonal wear.
- Wool is easy to care for and requires less frequent washing, because it is naturally odour and stain-resistant. This saves you time, energy, and water.
- Wool is durable, which allows for the creation of long-lasting garments that will last for many years.
Creating a farm-to-fashion-to-fibre system with local wool
As the sustainable fashion movement grows, sustainability, animal welfare, ethics and the environment are becoming increasingly important as factors influencing fibre choice when purchasing garments.
The farm-to-fibre-to-fashion movement calls for transparency throughout the entire supply chain, from farming, making the textiles to the workers sewing the clothes.
If you are wearing a woollen garment, its origin is a farm. Some sheep breeds have fine wool that is used mainly for garments, and others produce a coarse fibre that is used for textiles, carpets, and insulation.
So, as we find ways to create a more regenerative, low-carbon, ethical local textile industry, we need to focus on farms too. Since South Africa is known for being a significant wool-producing hub, wool farming becomes a key leverage point for championing a more ethical and sustainable fashion system.
Regenerative farming is the future of wool
When it comes to creating a fashion industry that treads lightly on the Earth and values social wellbeing, many of the solutions have been around for decades. There is a growing awareness that sustainability does not have to depend on high-tech solutions.
The Eastern Cape region of South Africa is the largest wool-producing area in the nation. According to three regenerative sheep farmers in the Karoo – Matthew van Lingen, Stefan Erasmus, and Roland Kroon – low-technology solutions are the way to go.
Regenerative agriculture is a key example of this low-tech approach. It has been the practice of many cultures for thousands of years and is slowly becoming the standard of farming in many industries.
Regenerative farming creates a symbiotic relationship between plants, soil, animals, and people. This type of farming avoids harmful pesticides and rather focusses on chemical-free techniques that improve the nutrient density of soils. “We are trying to live within the natural environment, and disturb it as little as possible while making a living,” says Erasmus.
It also promotes sequestration of carbon which is a process wherein carbon from the atmosphere is captured and stored back in the soil. This process not only keeps carbon out of our atmosphere but also makes the soil more resistant to droughts.
“Using the word ‘sustainability’ makes no sense if we do not have anything worth sustaining. We need to focus on the soils and regenerating the land if we want to create thriving and resilient land systems,” says van Lingen.
“Regenerative farming starts with a mindset. It’s about how you approach issues and make decisions in a holistic way that recognises the dependencies between people, animals, and the planet,” says Kroon. He says this is because nature is complex and self-organising, which requires us to step out of our silos and look at the connections between systems.
While regenerative farming sets us on the path to reaching climate goals, it also lends itself to higher-quality resilient fibres and creates healthy ecosystems. “Regenerative living is no longer a choice,” says Kroon.
Holistic land management is key to creating regenerative farming systems
All of the farmers we spoke to in the Karoo emphasised the important role of animals in regenerative farming systems. This is because grazing is a way to keep the indigenous Karoo vegetation – known as the “veld” – healthy.
Biodiversity is what maintains the stability of our ecosystems. To them, protecting the biodiversity requires land management. “We’ve been able to increase the biodiversity of our farm using sustainable land management. If you put any animal in an area, they will graze until nothing is left. But, we allow animals to graze for a short period and then the land rests for a long period. So, animals and how you manage your land are vital for the biodiversity of the veld,” says Erasmus.
Both van Lingen and Erasmus advocate for a grazing method that involves allowing all of their sheep to graze for a short time, in a small area of the veld, and then rotating them to another area. “This allows for the plants to rest, the land to regenerate, and carbon to be locked in the soil. It imitates the historic grazing patterns of nomadic people who travelled with their livestock,” says van Lingen.
Herders are also key to the process of holistic land management and regenerative farming. Herders play a key role in ensuring that the grazing patterns of the livestock are in harmony with the land and biodiversity of the area. The Herding Academy, based in Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape, teaches people to use livestock as a regenerative tool starting with eco-literacy, much of which is inculcated in indigenous farming practices.
Sheep that graze on local vegetation – such as sweet grasses and ryegrass in the Karoo – play a vital role in the natural carbon cycle. Sheep consume organic carbon when eating plants and store this in their fleece – 50% of a fleece’s weight is pure organic carbon stored in a durable, wearable form.
But, when sheep are farmed industrially, using feed lots where they consume more maize than they would if they were grazing in open fields, they become major emitters of methane (a harmful greenhouse gas). This is another reason why regenerative sheep farming is the way to go. “Holistic land and grazing management are the most powerful climate change and drought mitigation strategies,” says Kroon.
From fibre to fashion
Once the wool is sheared from the sheep every six to nine months, it is compressed into bales. Each bale weighs between 180-200kg. From the Karoo farms, the bales are transported to Gqeberha where the wool is tested.
“When I sheer my wool and it gets taken to Gqeberha to get tested before it is put on auction, it undergoes 40 tests to determine the quality before it is sold. This testing determines the price and value of the wool,” says Erasmus. The wool is tested for various qualities, such as micron, length, clean yield, and strength of the fibre.
Once the wool has been valued, it goes into an auction process where buyers bid for the wool before it is exported. To decide on what wool to buy, buyers will consider qualities such as the length and structure of the wool. Modiano SA, Standard Wool, Lempriere SA, and Stucken & Co are examples of wool buyers.
Once the wool has been bought, it has to be processed, cleaned, spun, woven, and dyed before it ends up as a beautiful woollen garment in retail spaces.
To learn more about the different role-players in the South African wool industry, read this.
The challenges and opportunities
Apart from the Covid-19 pandemic, the industry has also faced biosecurity challenges, stock theft, predators, stray dogs, droughts, floods and fires, which have all affected profits across the value chain. These threats will only increase as the climate crisis worsens, which is why regenerative farming is a necessity according to the Karoo farmers.
“We need a new paradigm that involves a common-sense approach to land management and policy and research needs to change to create an enabling environment for learning,” says Kroon. Going forward, there are many challenges and opportunities for the local wool industry.
Increasing local processing
More than 95% of wool produced in South Africa is exported to international markets. According to Cape Wool SA, approximately 80% of this exported wool is sent to China for processing. But, as of April 2022, China instated a ban on the import of South African wool due to an outbreak of foot and mouth disease . This has had massive economic impacts on communal and commercial wool farmers.
This reliance on international processing of wool, especially in China, has prompted the South African wool industry to try to find ways to process wool locally and reduce this dependence.
“The only way to change this dependence meaningfully, in the long term, is to find ways to process wool in South Africa. This is not easy, but it is a viable option,” says Jacques le Roux, General Manager: Fibre (wool and mohair) at OVK, an agricultural company in South Africa. Localising processing will also create job opportunities to tackle the increasing unemployment rates in South Africa.
Finding solutions to this problem is a priority for Cape Wools SA. “We are prioritising finding solutions to locally wool processing in the next few years,” says Paul Lynch, vice chair of the Cape Wools SA board.
“The drive to mechanisation is reducing the need for labour in a country where unemployment is one of our biggest crises,” says Kroon. The wool industry has the potential to create meaningful employment and this should be considered when designing farm-to-fibre-to-fashion systems.
Including small-scale and communal farmers in regenerative farming
In South Africa, there are thousands of small-scale and communal farmers who also play an important role in the wool value chain.
Integrating these farmers into the value chain is the work of the NWGA. “We want to integrate communal farmers into the wool value chain, allow them access to the formal markets, and provide them with the necessary technology to increase production and capacity for employment creation,” says Leon de Beer, General Manager at the National Wool Growers Association.
One of the ways that the NWGA does this is by organising communal farmers into structured wool growers’ associations. “One farmer with five sheep can’t access the formal market. But, if we have 20-40 of them in a group, they can collectively harvest, sheer, class their wool, bale it, and access the formal market,” says de Beer.
Tackling barriers to entry for designers
There is a similar barrier to entry for designers. One of the biggest challenges facing emerging designers who want to work with wool is the inability to access wool in small quantities that suit their production scale and financial capacity.
“I get my wool from South African Mohair Industries Limited (SAMIL), because they offer a stock service that allows me to buy wool in smaller quantities which is helpful as a small business,” says Natalie Green, founder of Inke Knitwear.
Encouraging traceability and transparency
As consumers become more curious about the stories behind their clothes, traceability and transparency along the value chain are becoming increasingly important to underpin the story of wool at the consumer level.
“Every cow and animal on our farm gets an electronic tag shortly after they are born. We trace all the information from their parents, birth weight, weaning weight, medication they have been given, to information about the wool,” says Yolandi Erasmus.
So, if you scan any of their animals you can access the history of each animal. The development of this type of software is important for greater value chain transparency.
There are also various natural fibre certifications – including the Sustainable Cape Wools Standard – that encourage transparency, increase quality, and provide easily understood information to consumers.
“These certifications add value to our wool products,” says le Roux. But, he warns that we must be careful of certifications becoming a “marketing race” instead of using them in a meaningful way to communicate the value of South African wool to consumers, buyers, and retailers.
Local designers working with South African wool:
Designers play a key role in drawing attention to the possibilities and beauty of the local wool industry. While for small brands, accessing wool in appropriate quantities is still a challenge, there are a growing number of local brands paving the way for the local wool industry to thrive. A few include:
- Wrapt Knitwear
- Inke Knitwear
- Core Merino
- Emilia D
- Lukhanyo Mdingi
- Gerber & Co
To learn more about preferred South African animal fibre textiles, read this.
South African wool educational programmes:
For those who are interested in learning more, or are considering a career in the local wool industry, there are various educational programmes on offer including:
- The Sheep and Wool Academy for Southern Africa
- Grootfontein College of Agriculture
- Beskuitfontein’s one-and-a-half-day course on intensive sheep farming and data management. During the course, attendees are exposed to the traceability software that they use on their farm. For more information contact 082 446 6908
- Images by Samantha Reinders
- The learnings shared in this article draw on speakers, farmers, and producers present at the Karoo Winter Wool Festival that took place on 25 June 2022 in Middelburg.