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Mukhayyar - The History of the Angora Goat


"The goats of this country bear wool so fine that one would judge it to be finer than silk."
-Pierre Belon, French Naturalist, 1546


Ankara, which is located in the central province of Anatolia in Turkey, is a city of ancient origins. Beneath the city's foundations can be found artifacts from the cultures of the Hittites, the Phrygians, the Persians, and the Macedonians under Alexander the Great. The Galatians conquered the city in 278 BC, making it their capital and naming it "Ancyra,” meaning, "anchor.” The Roman Emperor Augustus conquered it in 25 BC, and the Romans were responsible for important advances in industry, including developing a textile market as well as agriculture growth. 

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Ankara remained under Byzantine control until 1071 when the Seljuks Sultan Alparslan defeated the Byzantine Emperor Diogenes. Under Alparslan's successor, Malik Shah I, the Seljuk Empire expanded in various directions so that it bordered China in the East and the Byzantine Empire in the West. However, after Malik Shah's death, quarreling ensued among his successors, and the Seljuk Empire was fragmented.

With the coming of the Ottoman Empire, Ankara solidified itself as a major way station through which and to which pilgrims and merchants journeyed. Ankara was fast developing a booming textile market, and one of their principle exports was a fine, woven cloth called "mukhayyar." Mukhayyar apparently originates from the Arabic "khayyara" which means "to choose" or "to prefer.” Alternately, the wondrous fiber was called "muhayyar,” "moucayar,” and ultimately it was phonetisized by Western merchants into "mohair.”

The producer of this fine fiber was a smallish animal, of whose type there existed none other in the world except in the region of Anatolia, almost all within a 100-mile radius of Ankara. Thus, Western Europeans first began to take notice of the Ankara (later called Angora) Goat, the “Tiftik Kecisi.” 

Little is known from whence the Angora goat originally appeared. References are made as far back as Biblical times to long haired goats, and fragments of cloth made from long goat hair has been excavated in ruins dating back over two thousand years. What makes the Angora differ from any type of longhaired goat is that it has no double coat. Its hair is a purely soft single coat, growing naturally in fine, white ringlets as much as an inch a month making it probably the most efficient grower of fiber in the world. 

According to word-of-mouth accounts passed down by Turkish shepherds, Sulayman Shah, wishing to avoid the advancing armies of Ghengis Khan, left Khwarazm (Turkistan) driving before him thousands of longhaired, white goats. His descendents settled in Anatolia, and from these flocks, the Angora goat known today was established. Others suggest that Ghengis Khan himself, moving them with his armies to provide food and cloth, brought the goats. Still other accounts suggest that the Angora came originally from the Himalayas, but because no goat of this type exists in that area today and there are no documented historical references or cloth fragments existing, this cannot be proven. However, historical references do exist in the form of cuneiform tablets as far back as the 14th century B.C. -"kid with the white, beautiful hair" and a biblical reference appears in The Song of Soloman: "Thy hair is as a flock of goats, that appear from Gilead." Among breeds of domestic animals, the Angora may arguably be the oldest breed that exists whose physical appearance has remained virtually unchanged over millenniums.

Between about 1458 to 1471, Mahmut Pasha, one of the grand vizirs of Mehmet II, built a bedestan to accommodate Ankara's growing fiber industry. A bedestan, taken from the Persian “bazzazistan” means "a place of cloth sellers.” This bedestan contained about a hundred shops. Next to it, Mahmut Pasha also had built a caravansary to house the large caravans bearing goods to the East and West. 

In 1555, Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq visited Ankara and gave a detailed account of mohair production in Ankara: "The goats of this country grow wool so fine that one would judge it to be finer than silk. Also it surpasses the snow in whiteness. These goats are not any larger than our goats and are not sheared like sheep. Instead, one plucks out their hair.” This practice of combing or plucking the mohair was to prevent blunt ends caused by shearing, but illustrations in later periods depict the Angora being sheared. It was customary to only shear or pluck once a year, in the spring. This practice remains to this day in Turkey, whereas Angoras now raised in other parts of the world are customarily sheared twice a year. Before combing or plucking, the herders would make a "shampoo" of water mixed with ashes and lime, and then wash the goats down in flowing streams. The women would then take the mohair and comb it out with fine toothed combs to prepare it for spinning. They would often moisten the fiber with spit, as mohair lacks the lanolin found in wool. It was said that the best spinning was done during melon season, as the melons provided the best quality to saliva. They then spun the mohair into thread on distaffs, which was then sold at the bedestan to weavers' guilds. The weavers would seek threads that matched in equal thickness, then the women spinners would connect them and reel these into a single skein. 

Before weaving, the spun yarn was saturated with “chirish”, a substance made from a root like a radish. The roots were dried, pounded, and mixed thoroughly with water. The liquid was then drained off. The weavers would take mouthfuls of the substance and continually spit it upon the threads as they worked. The weaver would sit on the ground in a small pit and work treadles, usually two or four. The bottom of the loom was fixed to the floor, and the top was suspended from a high ceiling.

The fiber industry in Ankara was divided in four separate guilds: the weavers, the washers, the dyers, and the pressers. In addition, there were guilds for caftan makers, capmakers, and felt makers. The weavers were often families who kept a loom in their households, either in Ankara or in the villages around Ankara. According to records at the height of Ankara's mohair trade, it is estimated there were about 1000 looms working in Ankara and the surrounding community, with about 10,000 weavers. The washers, dyers, and pressers usually worked for traders, and processed the mohair from surrounding areas.

Busbecq goes on to say: "We saw also the famous goats from whose fleece or hair... the well-known cloth known as chamlet or watered cloth." "Camlet,” also known as "Chamlot,” "Camelot,” "Zamlot" or several other variations was the finished cloth made from the spun mohair. The word comes from the Arabic word "khamla" which means "cloth." Originally, the term "Camlet" was given to cloth or a coat made of any woven animal fiber, but eventually it came specifically to refer to mohair. 

Accompanying Busbecq was Hans Dernschwarm, who gave a detailed description of the preparation: "Chamlet, as mentioned is spun from the above-mentioned goat-hair. We have seen only Greeks who work it, wash, dye, and water-mark it under a press. Before they work it and before the threads are even attached (to the loom) they stretch (them) lengthwise from one point to another; they have a fatty grease with which they smear the threads. Then it is set up on the weaving frame (upright loom) and work it; then they wash it with soap in running water and it takes on the appearance of mohair without (a) water(mark). Then they put it in tall vessels, lidded copper cauldrons; therein they pile 70 pieces of chamlet, one on top of another, and pour over clean water which goes through. And they leave the cloth to boil for a day, until evening; between each bundle or each layer they lay several reeds, such as grow on ponds; thereby the water may pass through. As soon as it is taken out of the cauldron, they put the boiled chamlet, all 70 pieces, under a press and squeeze the water completely out. Previously all the reeds have been removed. From those boilings and pressings come the water(marks) on their own. They next fold them along their length and lay them and squeeze them under another press. Then they are ready." This method of processing mohair remained virtually unchanged until the late 19th century.

"Watermarking" was imbuing the cloth with a wave pattern. Busbecq describes the technique: "Here we also saw how the watered camlet is dyed and given by means of a press its watered appearance from the "waves" produced by pouring water upon it. The pieces which have received marks of very broad "waves" in continuous lines are considered the best and the choicest... The wearing of this cloth is a mark of distinction among the older Turks of high rank."

Another description of waving and dyeing the cloth comes from Evliya Chelebi in 1648: "The sof (cloth) is made wavey as follows: they place a large cauldron on a piping hot fire. Then they put the dyes of the colors that they want in the cauldron. Next they fill the cauldron half full of water and set up piles of sof on structures made of wood. Over each layer of sof is placed a layer of wood. Then they arrange layers of sof in the cauldron. They cover the mouth of the cauldron and daub a dough-like material (hamir) around it. They make the fire piping hot and, by the order of God, various traces (of colour) which neither the pens of Mani nor Behzad would be able to draw. This sof is peculiar to Ankara. It is impossible that it could be found anywhere else on earth."

Although Ankara remained the exclusive exporter of mohair cloth until the 1800’s, various wars and economic problems began to impact the industry. The handlooms in Anatolia could not match the production demands that the mechanized European looms were able to produce. The local dyes used on the sensitive mohair cloth began to be replaced by inorganic European dyes. The quality of the fabric produced deteriorated, and eventually weaving almost vanished altogether. In spite of an Ottoman prohibition on the exportation of raw mohair that dated back to the 1600's, it eventually replaced cloth as an export. In order to meet the mohair demands, particularly by the British, some were Angoras crossed with the local Kurt goat. This was an attempt to produce a larger, more robust goat with a higher amount of births, but it also affected the quality of mohair, making it coarser and less desirable. Despite a government ban designed to protect the mohair industry that forbid the exportation of Angora Goats, more and more flocks were shipped abroad. However, initial attempts to settle the goats outside the region of Anatolia were failures. The Angora thrived in an arid climate, and introduction to colder, damper regions often met with failure.

But despite setbacks, herds were eventually established in other parts of the world, notably South Africa and the United States. Often, Angora goats were bred with local goat stock to help multiply the numbers and increase hardiness, then through selective breeding and later on with fresh stock, bred back up to the original Angora quality. Thus, by the end of the 1800's, Ankara no longer held the monopoly on the world mohair market, and no longer produced the fine cloths so renowned in the past, and their mohair industry fell into ruins.

Today, Turkey has rebuilt its mohair industry, mostly financed through government breeding programs bent on improving fiber quality and yield. It is the world's third largest mohair producer, but has been struggling to maintain its place in the market. The United States is the world's second largest mohair producer, with the largest herds located in the plains of Texas, but other herds being established in the Northern states. South Africa is the world's largest producer of mohair, beginning with a shipment of twelve bucks and one doe in 1838. Unfortunately, all twelve bucks had been castrated before reaching South Africa, but the doe was pregnant, and produced a buckling. From this birth, South Africa's mohair industry was off to a start. Australia is also becoming a major world mohair producer, its climate quite agreeable to the goats.

A couple of offshoots of the mohair industry have been the establishment of Colored Angoras and Pygoras. Colored Angoras are a result of selective breeding between "ordinary" goats of various colors, then breeding back with the traditional white Angoras, attempting to establish an ongoing color or pattern, while striving to maintain the original physical characteristics of the white Angora, notably the fineness and length of the mohair. These fibers can then be processed into a naturally colored cloth or yarn without the need for dyes. They can range in color from creamy white to almost blue black. There may be one interesting reference to colored mohair from the past; Fragments of textiles were excavated at the grave mounds of Gordion about 50 miles Southwest of Ankara. Gordion was the capital of Phrygia from about 1000 to 700 B.C. Louisa Bellinger did studies of the fragments, and she identified fabrics woven from “golden-brown goats-wool, probably mohair.” 

Pygoras are the result of a cross between Pygmy goats and Angoras, resulting in a smaller fiber-producing goat. Many people, particularly in small-scale farms, find these little goats more manageable than full sized goats. Because of their gentle nature, they also are often kept as pets as well as fiber producers. They, too, come in a variety of colors.

Thus, the legacy of the Ankara Goat continues, in many lands, many climates, and even in many colors.

Compiled by Jean Aquino


REFERENCES AND RELATED LINKS


Travelers Accounts of Mohair Production in Ankara from the 15th through the 19th Century
The Textile Museum Journal 1993-1994, Volumes 32 and 33
The Textile Museum, Washington D.C.
By Gary Leiser

Angora Goats the Northern Way
By Susan Black Drummond

The Angora Goat: Its History, Management and Diseases
By Stephanie Mitcham and Allison Mitcham