Kiwi wool export success built on the traditional connection between horse and rider.
Californian style is a particular tradition in the western riding scene, not to be mistaken for Texan style. The Californian style goes back centuries, woven into Spanish culture and history, and influenced by Morocco. With Californian style, the connection between horse and rider is key.
A mecate, derived from the Spanish word for rope, represents that connection. New Zealand Mecates, a Wairoa export business with a long relationship with PGG Wrightson, has made the construction of traditional Californian gear its specialty. Utilising Romney wool to build a six-strand rope over a two-stranded core, the company’s founder Ilana Cheiban is making a traditional product with a non-traditional material.
“What started with halters soon branched out into rope and leather reins, headstalls and breastplates. I was drawn to the aesthetic of the Californian style, the art of the discipline and the unity created between horse and rider that look one and the same,” says Ilana.
Californian style cowboys, or vaqueros, made their own gear out of what was readily available: horsehair and cowhide. Ilana realised New Zealand has plenty of wool, which is more easily sourced than horsehair. Her woollen mecate has gained some keen adherents for the improved connection between horse and rider.
“Due to its inherent natural springiness, long-staple length and strength, Romney wool fibres transfer a signal from the rider to the horse with ease. You lift and vibrate the mecate in your hand, which doesn’t work with synthetic rope. As a natural animal fibre, the signal from the rider to the horse is so much clearer,” she says.
With a fine art background, Ilana worked as a secondary school art, design and soft materials teacher in Auckland and Waikato while exhibiting her paintings in New Zealand and overseas. Making her first halter in 2008 in a backyard shed, she quickly became hooked on the craft and started the business the following year.
“My first time at a local horse and tack auction, I sold 17 halters for $23 each and realised there was a market for the gear I was making for my family. I saw something I could provide and a way to supplement my income from teaching.”
After purchasing a rope twister from eBay in 2014, then a year of trial and error to develop the craft, Ilana added Californian style gear such as the mecates, loping hackamores and rawhide bosals to her repertoire. However, the style’s specialisation makes construction difficult.
“Every weekend, we would spend walking the length of the verandah of our house, twisting up mecates, which were often difficult and obstinate. We spent many frustrating hours on that verandah. We now produce six-strand one of a kind, bespoke mecates with a core of twisted wool. They are firm and durable yet soft in your hand and have a wonderful life to them,” she says.
As she developed the business, Ilana discovered her great-great-grandfather, Albert Lee, had been a rawhide braider and whip maker in Fontaine, Santa Barbara, in the 1920s, alongside the vaqueros: a century-old family link to the craft she is now dedicated to.
Ilana’s business is based in her Wairoa studio workshop. Her fiancé Stephen Doole is a client of PGG Wrightson Wool. Before that, Williams and Kettle, with the Wairoa family farm supplying Perendale and Romney wool for more than 40 years, worked alongside local wool representative Chris Payne.
That wool connection makes sense.
“New Zealand’s climate is damper than California, and horsehair becomes stiff when used here, performing less effectively than wool.”
Ilana is committed to preserving farmland as part of our history and essential for future generations.
“Protection, promotion and utilisation of natural, sustainable resources such as wool and leather will return value to a sector currently under pressure from all angles.
“I absolutely believe that we have to preserve our farmland. Using wool the way I do helps promote that,” Ilana says.
Pre-covid export rated about 95 per cent of the company’s business, mainly to Europe, the United States and Australia, winning New Zealand Mecates the Export NZ ‘judges choice’ award last year in Hawkes Bay. While export turnover has dropped since the pandemic, Ilana has been able to build up stock and expects business to rebound over the coming months. She maintains strong links with the Californian style community, using social media and sponsoring traditional events in the United States and New Zealand to generate customers and orders.
“My philosophy is to pay it forward and support the culture and community my business is part of, sharing the knowledge it is based on,” she says.