Woolly World – Celebrating the Karoo Merino sheep

By Julienne du Toit

Photographs by Chris Marais

Late afternoon light falls soft on the rocky outcrops of Dwarsvlei farm, just south of Middelburg, Eastern Cape. It’s the end of a mild Karoo winter Saturday in June, when most country folk are normally headed home for their fireside dram.

Instead, there’s an air of excitement and a steadily-growing crowd at a farm gate leading out into the veld. And yes, most of the grownups seem to be clutching a glass of good red wine.

They are here to see a fashion show, possibly one of the most eccentric and delightful to be held in South Africa in a while. In attendance are farmers with their sheepdogs, stockmen, design students, academics and Karoo residents dressed in clothing mostly sourced from agri co-ops. This is one of the final events at the Karoo Winter Wool Festival,  now in its second year.

You’ve never seen a fashion show like this.

There is no catwalk. As soon as the crowd has found comfortable vantage points along the old stone wall, the first models appear from a nearby shed, all exquisitely clad in natural fibres, picking their way carefully along the middelmannetjie in kitten heels.

Sustainability and fashion expert Jackie May was the MC for the fashion show at Dwarsvlei.

They step up onto pallets and turn to face the crowd. Sustainability and fashion expert Jackie May, founder and editor of twyg magazine, offers some information on the designer who created the dress, coat or outfit. . The crowd then surges forward and admires the statue-still figures in the veld.

The Importance of Wool

Wool is one of the South Africa’s most important exports. Of the country’s 45 million kg annual clip, 90% is snapped up by China, Bulgaria, Italy, Egypt, and the Czech Republic. This earns the country R5 billion a year, and it employs a startling number of people. According to the National Wool Growers Association of South Africa, there are 6 000 commercial and 4 000 communal wool producers, as well as 35 000 farm workers and 4 000 sheep shearers and wool handlers.

Stockmen are the cowboys of the Karoo veld.

But what of the 10% that remains? The clues were before us. South Africa’s foremost fashion designers have become entranced by natural fibres, and wool is top of the list, alongside mohair, alpaca fleece and cotton.

We found one of the designers, Maxwell Boko of MmusoMaxwell, at an exhibit that showcased the entire wool supply chain, from raw fleece and classing tables to yarn being spun into fabric on a massive machine.

Famed designer Maxwell Boko of MmusoMaxwell at the Karoo Winter Wool Festival, 2023.

“The reason the Millennials are choosing natural fibres these days is because it is sustainable, and causes comparatively little environmental harm,” he explained.

Maxwell his partner, Mmuso Potsane, have dressed Beyoncé and have won several major design awards. But their most prestigious is for their Autumn/Winter Merino wool line of 2022, when they beat 200 designers around the world to win the International Woolmark Prize’s Karl Lagerfeld Award for Innovation.

Other designers showcasing their creations at the Karoo Winter Wool Festival (via contemporary retailer Merchants on Long)  included Lukhanyo Mdingi, Viviers Studio, Fields (Mikael Hanan), Gugu by Gugu, House of Lucent (Laura Ferreira), Luminousware (Hanli Fourie), Inke Knitwear (Natalie Green) and Emelia D (Dorcas Mutombo).

Sheep (and alpacas) are used in regenerative agriculture in the Karoo, restoring the veld with their dung and hoof action, concentrated over short periods to mimic the ancient migrations and traditional ways of herding. This was taken on James Brodie’s farm, Doornplaats, between Graaff-Reinet and Murraysburg.

The Karoo Winter Wool Festival

Given the fibre’s importance to the country’s economy and the Karoo’s enduring association with sheep, the Karoo Winter Wool Festival was an event just waiting to happen. Middelburg in the Eastern Cape is the perfect place for it, only a short drive from Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth), which is home to 99% of the country’s wool and mohair buyers, exporters and processors.

Dwarsvlei Guestfarm, near a railway siding of the same name, was also the ideal place to host the weekend market. Once owned by racehorse-loving Randlord Henry Nourse, its old stables and sheds have been spruced up and turned into an exciting events venue where the annual Run the Karoo and Ride the Karoo are held.

There were thrilling demonstrations of sheepdog herding.

There were demonstrations of sheep shearing, sheepdog herding and dozens of workshops on spinning, felting, weaving, dyeing, knitting (of course), talks on sustainable fashion, and walks in veld to discover the names and importance of Karoo bossies.

The stalls showcased everything from sheepskin slippers and knitting yarn to mohair carpets, socks and clothes, to alpaca fleece, to South African clothing manufacturers using local Merino fleece (Core Merino and Gerber & Co), and woollen duvets made in nearby Richmond.

Desmond Engelbrecht of Gerber & Co.

There were also some interesting insights into the wool and mutton industry from agricultural economist Dr Wandile Sihlobo.

Agricultural economist Dr Wandile Sihlobo.

“The Karoo is one of the ‘assets’ of the Northern, Eastern and Western Cape because of its reputation and value,” he said. “The global fashion industry, especially the luxury goods and clothing industry, is now demanding wool, mohair and leather from the Karoo because of the Karoo quality, reputation and story.”

Sonwabile Mnwana, Professor of Sociology at Rhodes University, researching how woolled sheep can uplift poor rural areas.

Inside the Shed

The wool industry, in the Karoo particularly, has deep history and tradition. Almost everything here is still done in the old way, with the exact same tools used for decades: the blades and sharpeners, the classing table, the ancient wool presses and scales, the worn wooden ‘let-out’ chutes.

Shearing time (every nine months or so) is one of the most special weeks in the year on any sheep farm. The timeless atmosphere blends shafts of light, the murmur of shearers, the occasional indignant bawl of a woolly beast with the comforting smells of sheep shit and lanolin.

Every few minutes, a shearer goes to the back and brings through a new, wide-eyed animal to be sheared, clamping it firmly between his legs. If properly handled, the sheep sinks into a resigned trance, sitting on its bum, stoically acquiescing to the warmth being snipped away.

Because there is seldom electricity in South African shearing sheds, this country excels in blade shearing.

Most shearers work through 50 sheep a day, but the best can do up to 100, or even more.

The fleece comes off in one piece, more or less like the skinned pelt of an animal. When the shearer puts the dazed sheep back on its feet and gives it a commanding pat on the bum, it scuttle-trots off down the chute, relieved to join its mates.

In times gone by and still today, a shearer puts down a stone or bean for every sheep sheared in a container or on a shelf. These are called lootjies, or tokens.

Classing the Wool

The wool thrower gathers up the fleece and brings it to the classing table. With the dramatic gesture of a knight spreading a cape, he flings it onto the slatted surface, slick with decades of lanolin.

The classer buries his or her hands in the wool, looking at the length and fineness of the fibre – the best of which comes from the flanks. The fleece is divided up into compartments in the shed, and you can guarantee that any children present on the farm are dancing on the wool, helping to compress it before baling.

Women are generally considered to be better at classing wool than men, and it is a particular delight in early spring, when burying chapped hands in lanolin-rich fleece all day long leaves the skin soft as satin.

Where it Began

We have the explorer and soldier Robert Gordon to thank for bringing woolled sheep to South Africa. In 1789, he finessed the importation of six Merino sheep (two rams, four ewes) from his home country of Holland.

A design at the headquarters of Merino SA in Graaff-Reinet.

These sheep had been donated from their country of origin, Spain, but they did badly in the very moist Dutch climate.

The Merinos thrived, though, in the drier climate of Groenekloof experimental farm near Darling. When Gordon was ordered to return the sheep to the Netherlands in 1791 (the exportation of sheep from Spain being punishable by death at one point), he promptly despatched the same number of sheep.

But he failed to mention anything about the offspring.

These slowly increased in number on the farm until 1795 when Gordon committed suicide after the British occupation of the Cape. His desolate widow sold off most of the Merino sheep, and they ended up on a ship heading east. The survivors became part of Australia’s wool industry.

But three fine Merino rams had gone to Gordon’s friends, the Van Reenen brothers in the Overberg. Jan, Sebastiaan Valentijn and Dirk Gysbert were the next set of remarkable characters critical to the success of Merinos in South Africa.

The Van Reenens bred the Merino rams (referred to as Vaderlandsche skaap) to the indigenous fat-tailed ewes. Within six generations they had something very like the woolled sheep we know today.

The Wool Boom

There was a time during the 19th Century when wool was so cheap that a Graaff-Reinet builder experimented with stuffing it into hollow walls. The result was a very warm and soundproof house, writes Lawrence Green in his book Karoo.

By contrast, there were the heady days of the 1950s Wool Boom, sparked by the Korean War.  As American soldiers headed off to campaign in this icy winter land, the demand for warm clothes shot into the stratosphere around the world.

There are crazy stories from these times. Farmers would send in the fleece caught on barbed wire fences to dealerships as payment for brand-new motor cars. Bad taste and excess abounded. Second houses and double storey shearing sheds were built with wool cheques.

But money in the bank also led to a growth in intellectual capital. There were funds to send children to university, probably the first generation of Karoo farmers able to do this on a serious scale.

Buying a Ram

In 2021, we attend a Dohne Merino ram auction, hosted by Jan Peet Steynberg of Ganora outside Nieu-Bethesda, and Graham Hobson of the Pearston district.

Days before, the rams know something is up. They are kept overnight in a small paddock near the auction ring, fascinated by the fluttering OVK co-op bunting, which they take turns to nibble.

Freelance auctioneer Jakkie Nel takes the microphone, flanked by three assistants who will look out for the nearly invisible finger-twitches, winks and lifted eyebrows that indicate bids from those who don’t want their fellow farmers to know who is bidding on what.

“I’ve seen farmers sit absolutely still while flies crawl over their faces rather than wave them away and make an inadvertent bid,” grins Pierre Martin of Cradock OVK co-op.

The rams are lined up, ready to be led into the limelight. A cowbell rings precisely at noon. Bidding starts on Lot 1, a handsome fellow somewhat bemused by the sawdust-covered rostrum that keeps revolving beneath his hooves.

Jakkie extols his virtues in a compelling singsong, switching between Afrikaans and English with ease as each ram is led up to the rostrum.

“A lovely manly head, one of a twin, exceptional form. Look at that white wool. He handles well, he has good legs, his whole life lies before him.”

The assistants on either side announce each secretive bid with a loud “Hup” and the price jumps by R500 or R1 000.

Jakkie continues through the rams on auction, exhorting the buyers.

“Okay, this one has length, he has quality. Kobus my maat, is this the one for you? Mr Bailey, did you bid? Oh, it’s a fly – I’ll take that bid back. Look at his head and his back. Look how he moves. His mother bore eight lambs from five pregnancies. Are you through and are you done? No more bids? The hammer comes down on R27 000. Congratulations to the buyers. This excellent ram is headed for Cradock…”

  • Middelburg’s Winter Wool Festival weekend was capped off with the joyous news that South Africans Bonile Rabela and Zwelamakhosi Mbuweni had won gold and silver in the blade shearing individual division at the annual Shearing and Woolhandling World Championships, held in Edinburgh, Scotland.
  • For an insider’s view on life in the Karoo, get the Three-Book Special of Karoo Roads I, Karoo Roads II and Karoo Roads III by Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais for only R800, including courier costs in South Africa. For more details, contact Julie at julie@karoospace.co.za

One thought on “Woolly World – Celebrating the Karoo Merino sheep

  1. Suki V says:

    What an interesting article and great pictures to go with – far more than I ever thought with sheep farming

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