Next Generation: Ruth McNaughton

This young designer uses a 100-year-old loom to create refreshingly modern garments in mohair.

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“There is power in fashion, and being a creator of something powerful is just magical,” says textile and fashion designer Ruth McNaughton.

From its humble beginnings in Port Elizabeth, McNaughton’s company, Milk: Mohair She Felt is hightailing to the runways of Paris, New York and Milan.  

“I’ve always been creative, making things out of anything I could find,” she says. At the age of six, McNaughton started creating her own clothing using a pink plastic hand-powered sewing machine. As she grew older she became increasingly interested in knitting with mohair, a sought-after and sustainable natural yarn sourced from her hometown and exported globally.

Working alongside Port Elizabeth-based mohair manufacturer Momento’s of Africa, McNaughton is experimenting with different mohair colours and patterns to be sent off to none other than Karl Lagerfeld for upcoming collections for Chanel and his own eponymous label.

Her interests lie in ecologically sustainable fashion.

I find handmade garments from natural materials to be the most raw, pure and honest garments, the young designer says.

McNaughton pays attention to every detail involved in the manufacturing process of mohair.

She weaves on a 100-year-old loom and has schooled herself in the science behind how fibres absorb dye. “If you don’t know how things are made – each and every process – how can you design knowing the impact of what you intend to produce?”

I want to make people feel something, to transport them, to be whom they want to be – fashion can do that. Dancing in front of the mirror when you were five (or 21) in the most beautiful dress made you feel like you could conquer the world.

To date, McNaughton’s favourite design is a knitted shawl made from mohair and merino wool. Taking the two fibres directly from the animals, cleaning and combing them without putting them through any processes to make yarn, the designer deems her shawl to be the most pure and honest garment. “We have so much pollution, corruption and suffering, a product such as my shawl, which is good and truthful stands out and represents the breath of fresh air we all need.”

As a designer living and working in South Africa, McNaughton faces many challenges, such as competing with cheap imports. However, for this optimistic creative there is opportunity to be found in difficulty.

The trick for South African designers is to concentrate on designs that cannot be replicated by a sweatshop in the East, she states.

Her advice for doing this is to take a sustainable approach, which generally requires more time and would not be feasible for large factories. “Designers need to be more inventive and not just copy something they have seen before.”

Milk: Mohair She Felt garments can be purchased from BabyMo and Infiknit Yarns

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