A flock of Angora goats has generated a game-changing sock and homewear business for former cricketing legend Denys Hobson and his family.
Pairs of mohair socks are go-to presents for many people wanting to treat friends and family. However, most people are unaware that home-grown brand Cape Mohair is a fascinating South African success story, and has become the largest mohair sock manufacturer in the world.
The founder of Cape Mohair, Denys Hobson, was raised in Jansenville, the heart of Karoo mohair country. He studied accounting at Stellenbosch University, and become South Africa’s top spin bowler in the 1970s and early 1980s.
This was during the country’s time of political and sporting isolation: “My cricketing career came to an end and my desire for accounting disappeared, so I started farming with goats,” he explained, when I visited him in his Elsies River factory.
Eager to avoid recurring Eastern Cape droughts, “I first hired a piece of land in Klapmuts (about an hour from Cape Town) from Eddie Barlow – he farmed pigs and I tried goats,” said Denys. “It worked okay so I bought a piece of land and farmed in Klapmuts for 15 years until town got too close. So we moved to Caledon in about 1995 and we’re still farming there.”
When Denys began producing mohair, demand was low, so he started processing mohair and making carpets. Later he bought into a company at The Crags near Plettenberg Bay with 12 weaving machines, and began making mohair blankets.
The decades-old machinery at this factory still rumbles away. Gorgeous blankets are produced in gentle pastels like blue and lilac as well as multi-hued plaids. In fact, many well-known international designer brands like Laura Ashley source their blankets from this country location.
The already thriving sock division of the business, however, picked up pace last year when the company merged with a sock and clothing manufacturing company called Impahla (‘clothing’ in isiXhosa).
“We closed the clothing division, merged the best of both our businesses and now we’ve got 145 machines in Elsies River, some of which have been adapted to mohair,” said Denys.
This expanded production line has enabled him to keep up with local and international orders that are bowling in for his best-seller, the Medisock. “Soft mohair cushions the foot and stronger bamboo supports the ankle. Bamboo also has natural antibacterial properties, which appeals to diabetics and others who must take care of their feet to avoid infections.”
We walked past ranks of machinery and I discovered that Cape Mohair has created 135 manufacturing jobs in Cape Town alone. Some of the women have made socks for over 25 years.
“The environment is nice and the boss is nice,” said Aishah Louw, who began working as a checker 19 years ago and is now a deputy manager. “It’s about high-class socks and accommodating the client who wants something different.”
After meeting Denys in Elsies River, the next weekend I set off for his farm. As I approached the Riviersonderend valley, the landscape evolved into irrigated lucerne fields and herds of Jersey milking cows. Soon I spotted a ‘Spinlea’ sign and turned past a group of pungent Angora breeding rams.
“They do smell terrible, they urinate on themselves ahead of the mating season,” laughed Denys’s daughter Karen Quayle. She ushered me into a white-washed cottage ‒once inhabited by owls ‒ that she and her husband Neil Quayle have renovated. I met five-year-old daughter Julia, three-year-old daughter Camilla, two dogs and a cat.
We settled down to freshly-baked banana bread and numerous cups of tea.
“I began helping market Cape Mohair nine years ago while developing my accessory range ‒ like shoes and mohair socks with lacy edges ‒ under the Tjerrie brand,” said Karen, who also consulted as a physiotherapist. Neil worked for a leading property management company.
“We introduced more colour into the ranges and expanded the ‘farmers’ socks’ with new blends like mohair with cotton and bamboo. An outdoor sport and adventure sock range was geared at trail runners, hikers and mountain bikers.”
Karen and her Port Elizabeth-based business partner, Donné Bandey, also stocked and styled a section of the company’s Mohair Mill Shop at The Crags. Charming ceramics, children’s toys and other country-style stock complement the mohair products, which attract foreign and local tourists, mainly from September to May.
I recall, from a visit to this shop several years ago, that one of the biggest attractions is a pen of tame goats. “Children love to play with them and we keep on making sure they’re young,” smiled Denys.
There are now eight Mohair Mill Shop stores located from East London to Timberlake (between Sedgefield and Wilderness), three of which are shops-within-shops on the Midlands Meander in KwaZulu-Natal.
This demand for mohair products means that Denys’ Spinlea farm goats generate only about a twelfth of the fleece that is now required. Cape Mohair has become not only a producer of the fleece, but also a major buyer.
In fact, it was Denys’s intention to increase his flock numbers that encouraged Karen and Neil to realise their dream of moving out of the city four years ago.
“Coming from town we thought we could do it all, just tick off the boxes, but it was a crazy time. Goat kidding started at the end of July in a wet winter, when Camilla was just 10 days old,” they recall.
Now the couple are well-established and proudly off the grid: “We’ve installed solar panels, have a gas oven and stove, and solar and gas geysers, which we switch over on overcast days and in winter.”
Karen, Neil and six staff are now in charge of about 2300 goats. Karen manages the Mohair Mill Shop website and is computerising breeding data while creating designs for her new men’s socks range, Old School, stocked in the Mohair Mill Shop stores. Neil manages day-to-day farming and in his spare time trains for marathons wearing Cape Mohair socks.
We inspected some of the goats, which looked remarkably healthy. Karen told me how the children had given them names like Sprinkles and Sugar and loved bottle-feeding the kids.
In the garden, roses bloomed over the septic tank and fruit trees, watered from two rain tanks and laundry overflow, were starting to bear pomegranates, almonds, figs and lemons. It looked idyllic. I found it hard to tell who looked happier, the young family or the goats.
What a great innings for Denys and Cape Mohair … from Jansenville in the plains of the Camdeboo, to manufacturing blankets in the Garden Route, farming in the Overberg, and now operating the largest mohair sock manufacturer in the world!
Pics Judy Bryant, Lavone Bosman and Cape Mohair.