meet the maker: karoo dreaming with designer frances van hasselt
It all began on the southern edge of the Great Karoo. This semi-arid region of the Western Cape is where Frances van Hasselt spent her childhood. It is what inspires her – and it’s the birthplace of the world’s finest mohair.
Working with the luxurious yarn was always on the cards for Frances, who developed a love for it early on. ‘I grew up on a farm with a family who is passionate about Angora goats, which produce mohair. ‘I’ve always wanted to create an end product from it,’ she says, adding that working with the textile fibre was a ‘personal hobby’ at first.
That hobby has now developed into a growing concern: Frances designs and sells exquisite handcrafted mohair rugs through her company, Frances VH Mohair, whose Raw Landscapes range uses raw, unprocessed mohair, while the Karoo Plains collection is made from machine-washed, combed mohair. The third range, Patterned Places, is inspired by the shapes and colours of South Africa.
The idea for the business was born from a realisation Frances had while working in the fashion industry. Having been in the business in SA and in Asia, she noticed there were very few locally manufactured mohair products on the market. ‘South Africa produces the majority of the world’s mohair and processes almost all of it, but we export about 80% of this in a very raw format. So we never get to see what can be done with it here,’ she says.
This was something she could change with her beautiful rugs. Initially, Frances was discouraged by the limited resources available in our local textile industry, which posed a hindrance to her vision. ‘I was so frustrated when I started,’ she says, ‘because I knew what I wanted to create. I had done a residency in a textile house in Japan and there was so much that could be done there [in terms of industrial resources].’ But Frances received some good advice from Masaki Sato, head designer of Japanese textile house Sato Seni, which changed her way of thinking. ‘He said, “Stop forcing something that you don’t have. Start looking at what you do have; then you can compete on a global scale – but provide something that the rest of the world is not doing”.’
So Frances changed her mindset and set off on a mission to learn. She travelled around the country for a few months, gathering knowledge, and in the process, discovered a group of women in the Eastern Cape who are skilled handloom weavers. They were the key that opened up an opportunity for the business. She had found a way to create her designs in the most authentic way, while creating a demand for the disappearing art of weaving by hand, at the same time empowering the women who do it.
‘Essentially what we do is link these rural, artisanal women and this traditional craft to designers and to a global marketplace,’ she says. ‘When you combine all of this, you end up with a product that is unique, and which people want to buy – not just because it has an African story, but because it is the best, and you can’t find anything else like it.’
When it comes to telling that African story, Frances didn’t want a generic ‘blanket’ narrative. She wanted something uniquely Karoo, and this is translated through her minimalist, bold designs. ‘What I’m trying to do with the brand is create an awareness of the area,’ she says. ‘It is an amazing, unique area in the world, and the home of Angora goat farming. From the earth, to the plants and animals, and the simple Karoo architecture – that is what inspires our colours, our textures and then, ultimately, our designs.’
All of this is clearly reflected in Frances’ products. At first glance, the Karoo can seem vast and empty, but on closer inspection, it reveals an intricate complexity. Similarly, when you look closely at the craftsmanship of the rugs, you appreciate just how much has gone into the making of each one.