Rug Maker Frances van Hasselt Weaves A Special Thread

The arid, semi-desert landscapes of South Africa’s central Karoo region are an acquired taste. This is a place where extreme harshness – scorching heat on summer days, icy cold on winter nights – coexists with the delicate beauty of indigenous plant life, and where the bone-dry air is scented with dust yet remains exquisitely clean and crisp. Sunrise and sunset are soft and subtle moments, the land stretches endlessly to the distant horizons and the sky feels somehow higher above one’s head than it does elsewhere. The people of the Karoo are special too: friendly to every visitor yet with an inner reserve that reflects the elusive nature of the place in which they live and work.

This is also an area renowned for its exquisite mohair. The mohair fibers produced by the Angora goats of the Karoo are some of the very best in the world, prized around the globe (and most especially, in the textile centers of Italy and Japan). In South Africa itself the exceptional quality of local mohair is not as well known. Partly as a result of this, almost all of it is exported as a raw material, to be spun, dyed and woven elsewhere. This is why, as designer, rug maker and Karoo native Frances van Hasselt explains, it was only once she had spent some time working in the international fashion industry that she, “came to realize how incredibly special and unique mohair is.”

van Hasselt had always known about mohair: she grew up on the van Hasselt family farm, which is located outside the small town of Prince Albert and includes one of the oldest Angora goat studs in South Africa. The mohair produced by those goats is an integral part of her heritage. No wonder then, that she, in her words, “became determined to produce a local product… that highlights [mohair’s] unique and desirable qualities.” The result of that resolution is Frances V.H Mohair Rugs.

Making one of her rugs is a uniquely creative process for van Hasselt. “When I am in the Karoo I make sure that I spend time outside walking, as this is where most of my ideas and inspiration come from,” van Hasselt recalls. The light and the colors, the patterns formed by the region’s gravel roads and folded mountain ranges – all of these unique signifiers of place are reflected in her graphic designs. These might be inspired by “the tiniest folds of a veld flower or the balancing act performed by rock formations,” she notes, adding that for her, nature’s most valuable lesson is that “of simplicity.”

Furthermore, in van Hasselt’s view, “a sustainable, circular economy does not start in factories.” For this designer-maker, weaving and finishing a rug are the last few steps on an intricate supply chain that “starts with rain, the delicate ecosystem of the veld (landscape), the role of herdsmen, the importance of healthy animals to produce quality mohair.” She’s also very aware that the resulting raw fiber also has to undergo multiple processes – washing, cleaning, dyeing and spinning, most of which is done by hand – before the yarn ends up on her loom.

As van Hasselt explains, her rugs also reflect more than one single person’s creativity: she is a collaborator, both with her clients and with local traditional textile workers. Another of Frances V.H’s aims is to offer sustainable employment and training in a part of the world where jobs are scarce.

One result of this multifaceted approach to what she creates is that no two days of van Hasselt’s working life are the same. She spends time finding her inspiration in Karoo landscape around her, formulating her designs and collaborating with clients. “All our work is made to order, so I have a very close relationship with clients,” she explains.

But she is also occupied with promoting the Frances V.H brand, sharing its story with the world and, of course, “there is always something happening in the studio, from dyeing yarns, to spinning, weaving up new orders or playing around with different finishes.” And as this is a working farm, there’s plenty of everyday administration, logistics, packaging of orders and fixing of equipment – an inevitable part of running a business such as hers, too.

Reflecting both the uniqueness of the Karoo’s ever-changing landscapes and her personal passion for mohair as a fiber, van Hasselt’s rugs demonstrate her view that “South African mohair should be recognized in the same way cashmere is in Scotland or alpaca in Peru – and to achieve this we need to create exceptional locally made, finished products.” This is why Frances V.H creations are luxurious in the most contemporary sense: not as a result of being costly, but because van Hasselt’s captivating rugs encapsulate what she describes as a “worldview” that is all about “clean air, open spaces, an appreciation for nature, meals around a table with friends and family, and building a home in which you feel safe, calm and functional.”

Photography by Warren Heath; Production by Sven Alberding.

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