IS OUR STATE’S MIGHTY mohair empire—which produces 90 percent of the country’s total product—on the verge of unraveling? You’d think so if you visited the mohair meccas along the Edwards Plateau. In Edwards County, for instance, the Angora goat population is 30 percent lower today than it was back in 1993—it’s 50 percent lower statewide—and the price of mohair is about $1 per pound, down from more than $3 in 1994. The town of Rocksprings (population: 1,400) has been so hard hit that ranchers who haven’t sold off their herd to slaughter are taking second jobs just to get by. “It sucks,” says Mike Grooms, a local businessman and rancher. “There’s no money trickling down from the ranchers, and ranching is all we’ve got.”
That unhappy reality is partly the result of changing fashion. Just a few years back, mohair was all the rage among designers like Isaac Mizrahi, who used it to create hot pink evening gowns. But fads change, and at the moment mohair is as popular as parachute pants. “When fuzzy sweaters are in fashion, we can’t grow enough mohair,” says Zane Willard, the executive director of the San Angelo—based Mohair Council of America, the industry’s governing body. “When it’s out of fashion, we have huge surpluses.” Until recently, those surpluses weren’t a problem, because the federal government took care of mohair producers through a subsidy program it created in 1954. But in 1993—a year in which 85 percent of an Angora rancher’s gross income came from subsidies—budget-cutting feds began phasing out the program, which had paid out $541 million over the years (few ranchers got rich, but the feds howled over a few fat cats like newsman Sam Donaldson, who received $97,000 one year). The last checks were cut in early 1996, and ever since, the goats aren’t the only ones who feel fleeced.
Exacerbating the problem is a feud of sorts between the Mohair Council and mohair producers, who pay its bills. To create new markets for mohair, the council has begun to engage itself actively in the manufacturing of new mohair products. The producers think the council should be concentrating its time and money on promotion. Yet the council’s approach may be the industry’s salvation. The council is encouraging the use of mohair in such non-fashion items as wall-to-wall carpeting; rugged, heavy outerwear; and a new yarn called “no hair mohair”—a smooth mixture of mohair and acrylic. “If I talk twenty carpet manufacturers out there into buying mohair from our producers,” Willard says, “I’m smiling all day long.” Producers are coming up with their own innovations too: Set foot on one of the 100 percent mohair Oriental rugs made by Ford Oglesby of Eldorado.
“If things get any worse, we’re up the creek,” says Grooms. But mohair maven Chris Lupton, a professor of wool and mohair at Texas A&M University’s research center in San Angelo, believes the industry will pull through. “If you look back to see how Angoras have done at certain points in history, you don’t have to be a great historian to realize that they will come back,” he says. “The only thing we don’t know is when.”