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Saturday, November 9, 2013


Former cashmere sweater designer relates her numerous adventures - some enjoyable, some distinctly scary! (Review by Caroline Smart)

When Hillary Rohde left her home in Cape Town in 1964, the achievement of producing cashmere sweaters and creating an internationally renowned cottage-industry knitwear empire was probably furthest from her mind.

Apart from escaping an over-protective and controlling mother, with whom she had a volatile relationship, there was the apartheid regime - not to mention the family push to marry a nice Jewish boy instead of hanging around with the “wrong” kind.

In her book, The Other Side, Hillary Rohde (pr. "Roady") relates her life story and the tragic loss of her son with an engaging honesty ... and there’s a lot to take in. In London she became part of the hippie set and tried to finish her art degree. However, her involvement in drugs got her into trouble with the authorities so she decided to go off on an adventure. The idea was to go to Peru on a motorbike with boyfriend in tow. They set off for Lisbon to pick up a cargo ship but got no further than the customs at Calais!

Numerous adventures followed – some enjoyable, some distinctly scary. These included living on the beach at Formentera, a brief stint in Pernando Po (now Bioko), and a marriage of convenience to her friend’s boyfriend to obtain a British passport. There was a period living with a crowd of high-society aristocrats who favoured the gypsy life during which they looked after Mick Jagger’s house. Then her boyfriend moved to Scotland, presumably in search of visitations from extraterrestrials.

In her lovelorn state, she followed him to Scotland only to find he’d left, so she lived in a caravan in a commune high above Loch Ness. The gift of a spinning wheel lifted her spirits and she immediately became involved in the process. Thus the relationship with wool and Scotland began. At the same time, she began her relationship with Rick Rohde who was to become her husband and father of her two children.

They moved to the rugged Knoydart Peninsula in the west Highlands of Scotland, arguably the most remote part of Great Britain. It was a tough existence without phone, a water supply or electricity. However, the spectacular scenery provided a visual richness for her soul with the only other balm for her designer senses being her monthly subscription to Vogue magazine.

With most of the weaving now being done on machines, it was fairly easy for them to buy a workable loom. Hillary set to work with grit and determination on the lengthy and laborious process of removing the fine goat fibre from the coarse outer hair to make the down suitable for spinning. One of the most delightful sequences in the book is when she meets a compulsive knitter who represented many poor women who made socks, then unpicked them and re-knitted them!

Once Hillary had gathered a group of knitters around her, she persevered in placing her jerseys in commercial outlets and soon they were in Bloomingdales and in other New York shops. Orders would come in from Hollywood stars such as Natalie Wood. Before long the jerseys were being sold in France, Germany and Switzerland, as well as the US and Canada. In 2002, Rohde decided to sell her 30-year-old business as competition from China and Turkey had become too strong.

While there are images of the jerseys in the book, they are in black and white and the print quality does not do them justice. I would have liked to have seen them featured in colour, perhaps on the cover because her descriptions are so enticing!

The Other Side by Hillary Rohde is published in paperback by Jacana. ISBN: 9781431407804 – Caroline Smart