Baa, baa, black sheep, have you any wool?. The Dumfries House Experience.

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There is something magical about road trips. Waking up before the sun, packing the car and watching the world come alive as the sun rises. The changing landscape from concrete to suburb; from mountains and farmlands to the desolation of the Klein Karoo. Starkly stripped bare of pretence. Unforgiving to a lost mind, body or soul. I don’t seem to sweat in the dry heat as much as I do when back in the city. But it’s the winters I love most about the Klein Karoo.

I love the absolute silence. The isolation that comes with being in an unfamiliar town that seems to disappear when the locals make you one of their own. When you get lost in the smallest of towns and each turn is an adventure that comes your way. Even more so those evenings when you’re snuggled up on a sofa with a good book; waiting for the braising lamb slowly turning a crispy brown for dinner with garden veggies picked by hand. The feel of the silky softness of the jersey wrapped around your body.

It wasn’t until I was walking the streets of Stellenbosch, visiting one of my favourite concept stores The Farmer’s Daughter in Dorp Street that I got to thinking about wool. Familiar perhaps with the concept but not the fact that South Africa produces some of the finest, and most sought after in the world. But who, what and where escaped me. As I continue my search towards promoting artisan craft and the people who make this possible I started the first project for this year on wool and the people who make it accessible.

A skein of wool may seem an insignificant item, but to the team behind South Africa’s most ethical and artisanal producers, the Anne Fabre wool clothing brand represents new opportunities. A way to live out their creative talents and improve their and their families’ futures. De Wet and Annette Vogel are the fourth-generation Vogels to farm on the farm Copenhagen, between Van Standensrus and Smithfield in the south-eastern Free State. De Wet farms Merino sheep and a primary focus of his enterprise is wool production.

In 2014, after their children had finished their studies and left home, Annette decided to start a project to teach the women working on their farm to spin and knit, and thereby earn extra money. Annette was well-equipped for this task. After completing a BSc (Home Economics) at Stellenbosch University in 1985, she taught for three years, and during this time learned the art of spinning and dying wool at the Stellenbosch Weaver’s Guild. She and De Wet married in 1986 and moved to the farm in 1988.

Annette approached the domestic workers and workers’ wives and had no trouble in finding volunteers. Today, seven women from the farm and eight from the nearby town of Smithfield are involved in the project knitting a range of items. According to the women, participating in the project serves as an outlet for their creativity and some managed to complete one handed-knitting jersey per week. Annette also joined forces with Fabrice Rebouillat, a businessman from Smithfield, to establish the Anne Fabre brand.

In today’s world, we spend more of our time online and plugged in than many of us may realise, whether it be working, playing, shopping or even communicating.  In comparison, knitting demands a focus on the here and now. It’s a creative, calming form of mindfulness that is easily incorporated into daily life. Knitting’s repetitive yet focused rhythm offers a meditative break from the hustle and bustle. Knitting can easily be carried wherever you go and enjoyed on trains, buses or even lunch breaks.

Merino wool is 100% renewable and natural. Gifts – whether they are hats, sweaters, scarves or decorative design – made from Merino are completely biodegradable. Plus, with more people than ever becoming sensitive to man-made fibres and the presence of other allergens, garments and gifts knitted using Merino wool are a welcome respite amongst a sea of synthetics. About 300Kg of 100% Merino wool garments and other products have been sold under the Anne Fabre brand name during the past two years which is impressive to say the least. Encouraging because it means that my gut instinct is right as well.

Some of the products are knitted from washed wool bought from Segard Masurel wool traders in Port Elizabeth, while others are knitted from 100% organic wool bought from De Wet. Important to the Artisan is that all processes involved in producing this product from shearing, combining, washing, spinning and knitting are carried out by hand. “I thought to myself, I have wool that’s a genuine Free State and South African product, how am I going to introduce it to the world? You should see the look in the eyes of buyers at a market when I tell them they’ll be wearing a beanie knitted from the wool of a sheep that’s currently grazing in the veld and growing more wool.”

Knitting is an incredibly practical skill that perfectly lends itself to creating gifts that truly come from the heart. The ability to create something unique and from scratch offers a very real sense of satisfaction that even the most brand-loving consumer can’t deny. But one of the most common reasons that a whole new generation of people is picking up the needles are the therapeutic benefits that the craft provides.

Another reason that knitting has found a space in today’s world is that it offers a chance to produce items that are intimate and unique. Handmade crafts have had an enormous comeback as more people push back against mass production. Creating something yourself – no matter what skill level you might be at – comes with all the unique quirks and charm that only something hand-made has. But knitting offers an opportunity to take part in the slow movement but do so in the most environmentally friendly way possible.

The Anne Fabre range is currently sold via a Facebook page and stalls at craft markets, and Annette is planning to set up a website for online shopping too. “Clever management and marketing are key, as is stringent quality control. We want to think big, and, if possible, also market the brand in other parts of the world in future.”

Most importantly, the future of wool producers is starting to turn for the best as the fibre starts to become fashionable [italicised to show my disdain for the word] again. The Prince of Wales launched the Campaign for Wool in January 2010 as an initiative to expand the market for British and Commonwealth wool and to promote awareness of its environmental benefits. It has been successful increasing wool prices and promoting the unique qualities of wool over other fabrics, particularly oil-based manmade fibres.

South Africa, a member of the Campaign was represented last year at the signing of The Dumfries House Wool Declaration which agrees, amongst other things, that the major wool growing countries conform to the strictest standards of animal welfare as embodied in the IWTO Specifications for Wool Sheep Welfare. The IWTO Specifications are premised on the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare as set forth by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE): freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, injury or disease, the freedom to express normal behaviour, and the freedom from fear and distress.