The legacy of South African Merino wool began in 1789. The qualities of this fibre surpass many of the usual needs of the international fashion industry. A soft hand, moisture management, warmth and breathability provide a sensational wear, and countries with cold climates revel in the opportunity to use such a functional fabric.
Merino wool is a quality raw material, culminating in high foreign exchange earnings for South Africa. From regions like the Semi-Arid Karoo, the sheared Merino fleece is sold globally.
True, exporting raw material brings monetary value into the country and creates good international relations. However, solely exporting Merino wool fleece may in fact be damaging to the South African textile and fashion industry as well as the South African economy at large. Research shows that 98% of South Africa’s wool clip is exported. Moreover, 50% of the Merino wool exported to countries, such as China, is produced into clothing that is sold to the United States, Japan and Europe. In other words, these Merino wool products are sold in all major fashion capitals.
With this in mind, is it unrealistic to point out that with South Africa’s weakening currency and dormant workforce; the country should indulge in the continuous developments of new Merino products and wool processing methods? Not considering the abundance of raw material and employees at home. Yes, there are ratios to consider, like the work efficiency relative to the stringent labour laws of the country.
However, a sheared fleece, cultivated in South Africa, which is subsequently locally washed, combed, spun, woven and created into clothing, would not only instil job creation, but would also add value to South African agricultural products.
It is not uncommon for woollen garments sold in South African stores to be imported from countries that provide cheaper labour. Even though Merino wool is locally produced, it usually circles the globe before returning in the form of garments which most domestic consumers cannot afford. Currently, few local manufacturers make garments out of Merino wool, thus a gap in the domestic market exists! Therefore, introducing more South African clothing manufacturers to the concept of producing their own Merino wool garments would assist in creating a fashion for tomorrow. This will expose destitute citizens to skills that provide a means to live through clothing. There is no intent to excessively promote consumerism, but rather independence and entrepreneurial opportunities.
Fashion can provide aid by equipping people with the skills to care for themselves and progress. This ‘education through fashion’ will also stimulate growth in the South African clothing industry as well as the GDP of the country. Moreover, there is the opportunity for the South African people to be creative and innovative in discovering new manufacturing processes and garment designs for Merino wool. This is a viable concept considering how Kelly Esterhuyse, winner of the 2011 Elle New Talent Designer Search Competition based her line around another under-utilised South African resource, mohair wool. There is also a chance to indulge in the country’s rich heritage by using cultural clothing styles and merging them with modern technologies. This will be a novel collaboration that will allow the fashion industry to grow and impact the quality of clothing made, the prices paid and the lives of the local talent.
South Africa’s wool story can thus be of greener pastures. The domestic consumer will be someone who feels the comfort of wearing home-grown clothing, who knows that by purchasing ‘proudly South African’ products, they are in fact supporting their nation. The international consumer will be someone who has an emergent conscience about the clothes they wear; someone who values the harmonious union in producing clothes naturally and in a way that betters individual lives.
The lesson to learn is to buy domestic products, wherever home may be. Envisage the prevailing demand to care for one’s own family before caring for others. As Sir Thomas Browne once said, “Charity begins at home.”
This article was written and submitted by Stavroula Kolatsis for Round 1 of Modeconnect’s International Fashion Writing Competition. Stavroula was invited to take part in Round 2. Read all the published submissions.
All images courtesy of Kelly Esterhuyse