Masterweave Textiles

November 2015

An ex-goat farmer is producing mohair, cashgora and alpaca based luxury textiles

Lindsay Cairns carried out large-scale goat farming producing cashgora fibre during the 1980’s boom. When the industry went bust he bought and upgraded a woollen fabric weaving business, changing from coarse wool blankets to mohair, cashgora and alpaca fashion garments. The company, Masterweave Textiles Ltd, is now a successful and innovative producer and exporter of high-end mohair and alpaca products and has a turnover of $2 million.

Lindsay Cairns farmed bulls successfully in the Wairarapa during the early 1980’s. At the back of the farm were a couple of areas of gorse, and instead of spraying he wondered if goats would bring the gorse under control. A friend had feral goats running wild on his property and for a couple of crates of beer Lindsay acquired a trailer load of the animals. Out in the gullies they multiplied, and Lindsay selected for white ones because they were more visible in the gorse.

By the time the 1980’s goat boom arrived, he had 50 or more so he bought an “expensive” angora buck. “I think we paid $200 for it, which in those days was a lot of money for a goat. That was the start, and at the peak of the goat boom I had over 3000. The original plan was to breed angora goats but the crossbred fibre called cashgora, which is basically the coarse end of cashmere, turned out to be very profitable,” says Lindsay. “A French company was offering about $100 per kilogram, which was a godsend to the industry and for a young farmer with high debt and interest rates at 24% it kept me afloat.”

Lindsay explains that mohair comes from the angora goat and it is not the same as the fibre from angora rabbits. “It’s confusing for a lot of people because angora fibre is the fine stuff on angora rabbits but it’s not the same thing. Mohair comes from angora goats that are like sheep in appearance, with long woolly coats. Cashmere comes from the feral goats that run wild in New Zealand,” he says.

“The first cross of a mohair goat with a feral goat produces beautiful white, coarse cashmere, so I specifically bred for that fibre. However, six or seven years later the market collapsed, the company that was buying the fibre went into receivership and the whole industry fell apart. Being fairly hard nosed I got rid of all but 200 of my best goats, keeping them just in case the industry rebuilt itself.”

Looking for a new challenge Lindsay came across Masterweave, which at that stage was defunct. It had been set up some years before as a woollen and worsted weaving company under a regional development programme. A local investor had brought in gear from the UK but the business didn’t thrive. Lindsay bought a half share in 1989.

“The bones of the business were there when I got involved and I bought some new gear and shifted into a new factory,” says Lindsay.

“Originally I intended it to be a sideline interest because I didn’t have the goats to farm any more but it had potential and it grew. I ended up selling half the farm to purchase the other 50% and finance expansion and then 18 months later sold the rest of the farm and moved to town.”

At that stage the company’s mainstay product was the conventional tartan woollen travel rug that everybody got for the 21st birthdays or had in the back of the car. Then Masterweave started producing coarse wool blankets that were sold to the likes of The Warehouse and Briscoes with some exported to Russia.

As the market for those products began to wane, and with strong competition from Chinese woollen blankets, Lindsay looked around for higher value items that the company could develop. His goat farming background provided an idea.

“At that time no one was producing mohair throws and they were quite a luxurious high-end product. I thought we would try weaving them and after quite a bit of experimentation we succeeded,” he says.

“However, brushing the woven fibre was a problem because the machines we had for brushing wool, basically rotating wire brushes, were very severe on our loose weave mohair and just pulled the stuff to bits.”

Searching for a solution Lindsay found that the knitting industry used teasels, the dried head of the teasel plant, which is somewhat like a thistle head. When he saw how teasels were used for brushing up garments he decided there had to be a way of making a machine that could process runs of his products.

“I set about building a machine that was reasonably successful and now I am on a Mark IV model. We import teasels from Spain, put an axle through the middle of them so that they roll, and we have a drum about half a metre in diameter and that is covered with these little teasels on axles. They spin very freely on that drum as it rotates and brush up the woven fibre,” says Lindsay.

“All our products are woven in bouclé yarn, which means they are looped, and most are then brushed with the teasel machine to draw the fibre out of those loops.”

When the alpaca industry started to develop and went through high and low phases as the goat industry had done, Lindsay saw an opportunity to produce alpaca garments and got involved particularly with the Australian alpaca farmers, who couldn’t get anyone to process their fibre.

“Alpaca fibre is another natural product and its claims to fame are that it is largely hollow so it gives a bit more insulation and it is hypoallergenic – it doesn’t have grease, and some people who are allergic to other fibres are not allergic to alpaca,” he says. “And from a practical manufacturing point of view it is as good to weave as other fibres and we can make almost identical garments with it.”

Today Masterweave specialises in alpaca and mohair products for high-end niche markets. About 40% of its production is exported, most to Australia plus some to the United States, Germany, Netherlands and China. The balance is sold in New Zealand to high-end stores such as Kircaldies, Smith & Caughey, Ballantynes and others catering for tourists. The company also has a factory shop in Masterton. It has a staff of six, and a turnover of almost $2 million.

The mohair fibre is sourced from New Zealand and alpaca comes from both Australia and New Zealand. The fibre is spun by a Napier company and arrives at Masterweave on cones ready to be woven.

“New Zealand doesn’t produce sufficient volume of alpaca fibre to meet our needs. The fleeces come in a variety of colours and are sorted into 22 different shades, so while although someone might have 100 kg of fibre that might comprise 5 kg of grey, 3 kg of black and so on and we need at least 200kg of a set colour and a set micron for a processing run,” says Lindsay.

“We supply the Australians with Australian product and New Zealand gets products with a mix of Australian and New Zealand fibres.”

Lindsay is modest about his success, saying that he classes himself as a jack of all trades and master of some. However, his practical hands-on approach to the business is a strength in dealing with customers. “I don’t have a long background in this industry but we have survived while most of our competition has gone by the wayside,” he says.

“I was just a typical Kiwi farmer who was prepared to try his hand at most things. Today you can find me in the factory with overalls on working on a machine, or I may be in New York in a suit at a trade show, or you can find me in jeans talking to alpaca farmers. And that is probably one of the attractions of our company to potential buyers at trade shows, the fact that I actually make the stuff as well as sell it seems to blow some people away.”