I was travelling from Howick up the R103 when, just before Lidgetton, a sign on the right announced The Waffle Inn.  Lunch time was approaching so I stood on the brakes and turned up the driveway. I was welcomed by Adam Campbell, maker of the tastiest waffles I’ve had in the area.

The cozy little restaurant is part of an old farm house and, in an adjoining room, I saw a woman working at a genuine Sleeping Beauty-type spinning wheel.

“Let me introduce you to my mother, Lynda,” said Adam. “She produces mohair items from her Angora goats.”

And so began my investigation into spinning and weaving in the Midlands.

Writer and photographer Mark Preston-Whyte, who got to the bottom of the local spinning and weaving industry. Note the silly hat!

Lynda Campbell explained that after she and husband Jimmie decided to move from Durban to the Midlands, she began exploring the possibility of keeping Angora goats and producing mohair.

Dialogue

Lynda contacted the Mohair Association in Port Elizabeth, which arranged visits to mohair auctions’ floors, mohair processing factories and an Angora goat farm for her to understand the practicalities of keeping the goats. All the thousands of South African Angora goats originate from an initial three female goats imported from Turkey, one of which was pregnant and had a ram kid. South Africa now produces 50% of the world’s mohair.

Some months later Mohair-Live was started with a small flock of goats from the Karoo. The name was chosen to open dialogue about mohair.

Lynda described the process, which took some concentration on my part. In the beginning her goats were sheared by a gentle old man from Lesotho, but now they do their own shearing twice a year.

The fleece is tumbled in a rotating cylindrical sieve to remove dirt and second cut (short bits) fleece. It is then washed to remove the dust and dirt, dried in the sun, roughly hand-combed to remove any pieces of grass or seeds remaining, and to partially open the fibre locks.

A winter essential. Warm woolen gloves. Pictures by Mark Preston-Whyte

Spinning

Next, it’s passed through a drum-carding machine, which aligns all the fibres. The resulting rectangular “mat” of aligned fibres is called a batt.

Now the fibres are aligned the mohair is ready for spinning, the art of twisting the fibres into a single-ply yarn, the yarn winds on to a bobbin on the spinning wheel.

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The yarn can be made stronger by spinning two separate bobbins back through the wheel, now turning in the opposite direction to make a two-ply yarn. Three bobbins will make three-ply yarn. Multiple-ply yarns are thicker and stronger.

Lynda explained that dyeing the mohair can take place at any point. “This is a process I still have to teach myself,” she admits.

Lynda sells her unprocessed fleeces, handmade yarns, crocheted, knitted and woven scarves, beanies and shawls etc, as well as mohair blankets from the Eastern Cape, in her Meander workshop, Mohair-Live.

Hilton Spinning Group

Meanwhile, an introduction to Clare Smith gave me access to the Hilton Spinning Group.

“I retired to Hilton, bought a spinning wheel from the SPCA and, with three friends, began meeting at my home,” said Clare.

This social group has become so large that it now meets at the Golden Pond retirement home, where I attended one rather intimidating meeting of about 15 women.  Most had their spinning wheels going or were knitting, and all were chatting. It was difficult to get a word in edgeways. Clare took pity on me and brought some structure to my understanding of the group.

Fluffy and fun woolen toys.

She explained that some are active spinners, while others knit for family and could never recover the cost of their time by selling their goods. Some women crochet or weave.

Kathy Fennell makes beautiful felted woollen animals, which make wonderful toys for children.

Wendy Bloy has an online business selling home-dyed wool. She also displays and sells her products at the annual Royal Show in Pietermaritzburg and National Alpaca Day, when Alpaca farms all over the country are open to the public.

Tina Mossmer is in high demand for her spinning courses. She conducts a course every March in the Free State village of Van Reenen and plans to do the same in Greyton in the Western Cape and Pretoria.

“My approach is to get people away from the home environment so they can concentrate on learning,” said Tina.

Three-ply yarn

I was amazed to watch her producing a three-ply yarn on a spinning wheel using a single infeed thread. Her nimble fingers were preforming some magic to achieve this, in a process well beyond my understanding.

Tina is following new trends in wool technology. Apparently Merino wool can now be treated to make it resistant to shrinking and felting when machine-washed in hot water. She is also investigating information from a scientist at Cedara Agricultural College who informs her that Suffolk sheep wool does not felt.

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The Nottingham Road Spinning Group was formed after one of Tina’s courses and its members meet at one another’s homes. Among them is Wendy Channing, who runs an alpaca herd in the area.

Wendy Channing and Heidi Capp of the Nottingham Road Spinning Group.

After an eventful life as a skydiver and paraglider pilot, she got the opportunity to tend alpacas (and cows and horses) on Nirvana farm near Curry’s Post. It was a huge learning curve for Wendy, who is largely self-taught when it comes to the South American animals.

Discussing their hair, she said: “Alpaca hair is like human hair and contains no lanolin.”

Wendy follows the same general spinning process as that used for sheep’s wool, except it is not necessary to wash out the lanolin.

“There are 22 different natural alpaca colours, of which I have 13. I do not dye my wool. It is all natural,” she said.

Wendy is currently training two local women to card and spin. They will be paid per kilogram of yarn produced. She also wishes to transfer weaving skills to local women and intends running training sessions at Curry’s Post Primary School. The end products will be sold by her at a shop, which is soon to be built.

Presently, a number of women who receive wool from Wendy make beanies, scarves and gloves to supplement their incomes.

Alpaca Day

Wendy hosts an open day on the first Sunday of each month, providing an educational tour of the farm, and takes part in National Alpaca Day.

Lynne Mackay is another member of the Notties group. She runs a craft shop at Linga Lapa, at the N3 off-ramp to Nottingham Road/Curry’s Post.

Lynne, who dyes Merino wool at home, sells consignment stock at the store, where you will find Eunice (who did not want her surname printed). Eunice, who has 37 years of spinning experience, spins on site. She gets paid per kilogram of merino wool spun and also per item knitted. These include beanies, scarves, gloves and jerseys.

This article would not be complete without a mention of Shuttleworth Weaving.

Rob Shuttleworth and wife Julia are running the business started by Rob’s parents around 1978. Situated on the Fort Nottingham road, up a driveway which would defeat most front-wheel drive vehicles in wet weather, is the rural factory.

Elizabeth Gwatidzo at Shuttleworth Weaving in Nottingham Road.

Here, Theresa Malevu, who has been spinning for about 50 years and can, according to Rob, spin in the dark, is assisted by Zanele Madlala in spinning all types of fibres.

“The main focus is mohair, but we also use wool, cotton, sisal, jute and polypropylene. In fact, anything that is available. None of the spun material is sold. It all goes into our woven products, like carpets, rugs and throws, even some curtains,” says Rob.

Just about everything they make is a once-off, especially items for the American market, where clients want the exact colours and weaves of a signed-off sample. For this reason, commercial acid dyes, which are colour-fast and reproducible, are now used in their dyeing section.

They use a donkey boiler and a little gas to maintain temperature in the dyeing process. Batches are small, all dyes go into the wool and no heavy metals or salt are used, as is the case with natural dyes.

It is pleasing to see a family business finding a profitable niche market – most large SA weavers are battling against cheap imports.

The Shuttleworth shop in Nottingham Road, where Elizabeth Gwatidzo sells and finishes some of the items, displays their large range.

**More info/contact Mark