Frances van Has­selt’s mo­hair rugs are rooted in the Ka­roo



Along with the East­ern Cape, the semi­arid Ka­roo re­gion in the Western Cape is home to a num­ber of An­gora goats, who are per­fectly at ease in its hot, dry sum­mers, cold win­ters, and semi-desert veg­e­ta­tion. The fine mo­hair they pro­duce makes South Africa one of the big­gest global pro­duc­ers of this sus­tain­able nat­u­ral fi­bre; de­signer Frances van Has­selt, at her fam­ily’s Prince Al­bert farm in the Great Ka­roo, sur­rounded by raw and pro­cessed mo­hair, as well as rugs and sam­ples from her com­pany Frances VH Mo­hair.

It all be­gan on the south­ern edge of the Great Ka­roo. This semi-arid re­gion of the Western Cape is where Frances van Has­selt spent her child­hood. It is what in­spires her – and it’s the birth­place of the world’s finest mo­hair.

Work­ing with the lux­u­ri­ous yarn was al­ways on the cards for Frances, who de­vel­oped a love for it early on. ‘I grew up on a farm with a fam­ily who is pas­sion­ate about An­gora goats, which pro­duce mo­hair. ‘I’ve al­ways wanted to cre­ate an end prod­uct from it,’ she says, ad­ding that work­ing with the tex­tile fi­bre was a ‘per­sonal hobby’ at first.

That hobby has now de­vel­oped into a grow­ing con­cern: Frances de­signs and sells ex­quis­ite hand­crafted mo­hair rugs through her com­pany, Frances VH Mo­hair, whose Raw Land­scapes range uses raw, un­pro­cessed mo­hair, while the Ka­roo Plains col­lec­tion is made from ma­chine-washed, combed mo­hair. The third range, Pat­terned Places, is in­spired by the shapes and colours of South Africa.

The idea for the busi­ness was born from a re­al­i­sa­tion Frances had while work­ing in the fash­ion in­dus­try. Hav­ing been in the busi­ness in SA and in Asia, she no­ticed there were very few lo­cally man­u­fac­tured mo­hair prod­ucts on the mar­ket. ‘South Africa pro­duces the ma­jor­ity of the world’s mo­hair and pro­cesses al­most all of it, but we ex­port about 80% of this in a very raw for­mat. So we never get to see what can be done with it here,’ she says.

This was some­thing she could change with her beau­ti­ful rugs. Ini­tially, Frances was dis­cour­aged by the lim­ited re­sources avail­able in our lo­cal tex­tile in­dus­try, which posed a hin­drance to her vi­sion. ‘I was so frus­trated when I started,’ she says, ‘ be­cause I knew what I wanted to cre­ate. I had done a res­i­dency in a tex­tile house in Ja­pan and there was so much that could be done there [in terms of in­dus­trial re­sources].’ But Frances re­ceived some good ad­vice from Masaki Sato, head de­signer of Ja­panese tex­tile house Sato Seni, which changed her way of think­ing. ‘He said, “Stop forc­ing some­thing that you don’t have. Start look­ing at what you do have; then you can com­pete on a global scale – but pro­vide some­thing that the rest of the world is not do­ing”.’

So Frances changed her mind­set and set off on a mis­sion to learn. She trav­elled around the coun­try for a few months, gath­er­ing knowl­edge, and in the process, dis­cov­ered a group of women in the East­ern Cape who are skilled hand­loom weavers. They were the key that opened up an op­por­tu­nity for the busi­ness. She had found a way to cre­ate her de­signs in the most au­then­tic way, while cre­at­ing a de­mand for the dis­ap­pear­ing art of weav­ing by hand, at the same time em­pow­er­ing the women who do it.

‘Es­sen­tially what we do is link these ru­ral, ar­ti­sanal women and this tra­di­tional craft to de­sign­ers and to a global mar­ket­place,’ she says. ‘ When you com­bine all of this, you end up with a prod­uct that is unique, and which peo­ple want to buy – not just be­cause it has an African story, but be­cause it is the best, and you can’t find any­thing else like it.’

When it comes to telling that African story, Frances didn’t want a generic ‘ blan­ket’ nar­ra­tive. She wanted some­thing uniquely Ka­roo, and this is trans­lated through her min­i­mal­ist, bold de­signs. ‘ What I’m try­ing to do with the brand is cre­ate an aware­ness of the area,’ she says. ‘It is an amaz­ing, unique area in the world, and the home of An­gora goat farm­ing. From the earth, to the plants and an­i­mals, and the sim­ple Ka­roo ar­chi­tec­ture – that is what in­spires our colours, our tex­tures and then, ul­ti­mately, our de­signs.’

All of this is clearly re­flected in Frances’ prod­ucts. At first glance, the Ka­roo can seem vast and empty, but on closer in­spec­tion, it re­veals an in­tri­cate com­plex­ity. Sim­i­larly, when you look closely at the crafts­man­ship of the rugs, you ap­pre­ci­ate just how much has gone into the mak­ing of each one.

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