IN THE 52°C heat, marathon runners Cobus Oosthuizen and Velapi Lumko were comfortable in their woollen tops. They completed last year’s Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon wearing a new breed of performance gear promising sweat-wicking, odour-repelling, temperature-regulating durability, and softness. Wicking fabric draws moisture from the skin to the exterior of the shirt, where it can evaporate more easily.
"It was a big experiment," says Oosthuizen, who had organised performance-gear sponsorship for the marathon from Cape Wools SA, which gave them a chance to prove wool’s worth.
"In that weather, nothing will keep you cool; 20 people (out of a field of about 75) dropped out, — one lady went into a coma and had to be helicoptered out. We finished, so we didn’t overheat."
The men suffered no chafing after running 250km in six days in their woollen shirts, carrying backpacks filled with supplies.
"Smell-wise it was amazing," says Oosthuizen. "It’s gross, but you put a shirt on and you wear it for six days. You take it off at the end. There was no odour in that thing."
Technical advances have improved wool’s performance, and it is making a comeback in fashion circles after decades of fascination with many synthetic fibres.
Global wool production is at a 70-year low, National Council of Wool Selling Brokers of Australia CEO Chris Wilcox said last month at an International Wool Textile Organisation meeting, according to Farmer’s Weekly magazine.
"For apparel and textile wool, we have seen an increase in prices in US dollar terms, while in every other commodity, there has been a decline," he said.
Merino wool is fine, often with a diameter of less than 22 microns (a human hair is about 50 microns), and almost all of what is produced is used by the apparel industry.
The world’s largest merino producer is Australia, which has captured 23% of the global wool market, and about 80% of the market for merino wool.
SA produces 16%-18% of the world’s apparel quality wool, says Cape Wools CEO Louis de Beer.
"We are small in total terms, but not small in terms of apparel."
There is a 25-million kilogram shortfall in the global apparel wool market, he says.
"That’s 50% of SA’s current production, but in the past, SA produced 100-million kilograms, so we are not using the opportunity. We could sell 25-million kilograms more without any concern about affecting the price, or not meeting global demand. There is an opportunity to add R1.5bn to our gross domestic product contribution, which is at R3bn, or even R3.5bn given the weak rand. Australia can pick up this opportunity overnight."
THE recent drought and a decline in the number of sheep farmers means SA is unlikely to take this gap, De Beer says.
SA’s biggest customer is China, which this season has taken 61% of the country’s wool. The season ends in June. Another 16% of SA’s wool — most of which is merino — went to the Czech Republic. China buys SA’s "greasy wool" (the fleece) and processes it, making yarn, fabric, and even clothes that are sold to SA.
About four years ago, businessman James Terblanche was driving across the Karoo, when he stopped in Aberdeen, near Graaf-Reinet in the Eastern Cape. There, he met a sheep farmer who told him that SA produced 30% of the world’s merino wool.
While this seems an exaggeration, Terblanche was so struck by the figure that he conducted some research.
He discovered that the process of turning wool into fabric had all but disappeared from SA. "I thought, fine, let’s not worry about that, we can still do something."
Terblanche was already manufacturing clothing for the safari industry and he added a line of technical clothing — African Nature — using fabric from a global manufacturer that could guarantee that South African wool was used in every bolt, "so that we assist SA, create jobs and boost the wool industry".
However, his orders are still too small for him to send local wool to the manufacturer to make the fabric.
Wool-based technical gear has yet to take off in SA, because local consumers do not understand its attributes, Terblanche says. "It’s all natural. There is no synthetic fibre that can compete with wool. It ticks all the boxes. The local market thinks it’s super-warm and bulky, but it doesn’t have to be," he explains.
The International Wool Textile Organisation says wool has resilience and elasticity that is unmatched by synthetic fibres.
Wool fabric is expensive — an African Nature men’s softshell jacket sells for about R1,850, while a similar jacket from New Zealand’s manufacturer Icebreaker costs 299 New Zealand dollars — about R3,000. "It is very expensive, about R600 for a T-shirt, but compared to other natural fibre shirts, bamboo is the same price," Oosthuizen says.
WOOL fabrics are expensive because the processing is complicated and expensive, Terblanche says. After a sheep is sheared, the fleece is graded and sorted, cleaned and scoured (washed in a series of alkaline baths), "carded" or combed, spun, and then woven and finished.
A real factor in the rise of wool’s star has been the Campaign for Wool, championed by Britain’s Prince Charles. It launched in October 2010 and De Beer says it has been "tremendously helpful" to the global wool industry.
"According to the International Wool Textile Organisation, as you travel the world, you see a huge increase in the amount of wool displayed in shop fronts. Wool is back in vogue, and that coincides with the period of the campaign," he says.
Wool also dyes very well, an attribute designers appreciate.
"We use quite a lot of wool," says Starry-Eve Collet, owner-designer at Casamento furniture designers. "People think it is thick and scratchy, but it has an amazing hang ... and it colour-saturates very well. The colour has some depth." Jewellery designer Maria Uys has developed a range of Ndebele-inspired jewellery that has taken off in SA and internationally. She launched AfriGarde jewellery at the end of 2014 after she graduated from technical college, and recently received her first export licence. She makes her own felt.
"I just felt that wool is such a tactile and special medium to work with. There are so many possibilities, you can knit or make felt. It’s very sculptural," Uys says.
While SA is an important bit player in the global wool market, it is the hub of the mohair market, producing half the world’s stock.
Mohair SA’s latest statistics show that in 2014, SA produced 2.45-million kilograms, while the total world production was 4.71-million kilograms. Lesotho ranks second, says the organisation’s spokeswoman, Robyn Rutters.
According to the latest market report, for the summer season that has just ended, 98% of an offering of 198,631kg was sold in Port Elizabeth at R240.15/kg.
Mohair — which is hair from angora goats, not wool — is a luxury fibre that Rutters says has a better "dye responsiveness" than wool, is stronger, and is very crease-resistant, "so that’s why men in the know prefer to buy mohair suits".
SA is also a world mohair processing centre, producing washed "tops" — large, roughly spun balls of fibre that can be processed into yarn and then into fabric.
Europe is SA’s largest market, followed by China.
"Knitting is also very big," says Rutters. "The US is very big into purchasing mohair yarns."
Fashion designer Laduma Ngxokolo’s mohair shawl was voted Design Indaba SA’s most beautiful object for 2016. His apparel is inspired by Xhosa beadwork.
The shawl is made from 80% wool and 20% mohair.