Bathurst’s in Stitches – It’s better known as the home of the Big Pineapple, but the fibre artists of this Eastern Cape village are making magic with wool and mohair.
Words and Pictures: Marion Whitehead
The rural village with a casual air, near Port Alfred on the Sunshine Coast, has become a hub for creative types and is inundated with visitors whenever the weather chases them off the area’s sandy beaches. A proliferation of good eateries means browsing is satisfying on many levels.
In the centre of the village, diagonally across the road from the famous Pig and Whistle Inn, is Heart Felt Creations, the most recent addition to Bathurst’s crafty offerings. Mark and Iona Blair practise the ancient craft of felting, which involves layering and matting fibres to create anything from filmy scarves to cosy slippers and quirky, eye-catching hats. They’re all displayed on the veranda of the old stone double-storey building that goes by the Dickensian name of Bleak House.
German tourists, in particular, pounce on their creations, but many South Africans are unfamiliar with the felting process. “We layer the fibres on a resist shape, building it up layer by layer,” explains Iona, demonstrating the matting process by wetting and rolling the hat she is making. “We have to predetermine how much the wool will shrink and densify, to end up with a strong, seamless 3D piece.”
Mark shows me a seamless waistcoat complete with pockets. “It’s really quite a complicated process. Some people think more easily in 3D than others.” Handbags, oven gloves, bottle holders, toys and innovative fold-away hot bags for slow cooking are just a few of the fine felted items they turn out.
Iona learnt the basics of felting when she joined a craft group while living in the UK, and the rest came from books and her own experiments. She’s passed her skills on to Mark, who gave up the stressed life of stills film production in Cape Town when the couple moved to the countryside.
They have been running workshops in Port Elizabeth to train a co-operative of women in felting, but it’s a process that takes time and much practice to master. “We’re hoping to develop a synergy with them as they have the numbers and their beadworker can finish some of our products too.”
Iona likes to experiment with nuno felting, the term for using a mix of fabric and felt. “It drapes nicely, but jackets and tunics made like this are very complex designs and one-of-a-kind pieces.”
The pair is into permaculture and one of the joys of their all-natural products is that they’re biodegradable. “When they finally wear out, you can just chuck them on the compost heap,” says Mark.
At the other end of the village, next door to the police station, is The Workshop Art & Craft Gallery, a dynamic hub for 140 local artists and crafters to display their work. At its centre is Margie Addenbrooke, whose large hand loom stands in the centre of the gallery, while her smaller table loom is in a side room. “Our name is a play on the fact that this was an old garage with fuel pumps outside when we bought it and now crafters can also hire workshop space here.”
Margie is one of those rare creative types also good at admin and business. She and hubby Mark left the family farm in Zimbabwe with very little, and slowly established themselves in Bathurst.
In 2009, they started The Workshop with a small group of friends and it quickly mushroomed. “We look for a certain style and standard of authentic work, handmade from scratch by locals,” says Margie. “But Zimbabwean artists and crafters are exceptions – I always try to support them.”
Her love of textiles and fibres was encouraged by her mother-in-law, who was a weaver and presented her with her first loom, but it wasn’t until Margie gave up work in the corporate world after the birth of her last child that she took weaving lessons.
“Since then I’ve developed my own styles and only use natural materials,” she says, showing me a lovely loose-weave table runner on display, complementing the work of a potter. Her shawls and rag rugs are also popular. “I love playing with colour. It’s always a surprise when you take something off the loom and see how the colours blend.”
Down a bumpy gravel road is Adele’s Mohair, a farm-based enterprise providing employment for 50 people. Some have been with her since the beginning more than 30 years ago, explains Adele Cutten.
A trip into the countryside to visit their factory shop and take one of their tours is an opportunity to see spinners, dyers, weavers and knitters in action, making everything from soft, luxurious blankets and beanies, to stylish jerseys and wraps. Their baskets of out-of-the-ordinary yarns get fellow knitters and crochet fans really excited as they add other fibres and even ribbons to the mohair.
“We reuse and recycle all the ends, even the fluff from blankets, and this gets spun into yarns not available elsewhere. Everything is handmade,” says Adele as we wander from the dyeing room, past skeins of pale-green mohair drying in the sun to a group of women expertly winding yarn into ‘magic’ balls, a rich mix of lustrous colours and textures.
“It’s our competitive edge: we bring something new and different to the market, which helps create jobs here because this is a labour-intensive process,” says Adele.
What started as a hobby with just one employee has morphed into a successful export business. “It’s always been a mommy’s business. I started with no capital in our converted piggery buildings in 1983 and my mom and dad helped sell my stuff to farm stalls,” recalls Adele.
“The market is small in South Africa because mohair is a luxury item, so we have to export,” she explains. While Port Elizabeth, the mohair capital of the world, is less than two hours’ drive away, Adele says local enterprises have to buy at the same price as those with euros and dollars.
She returned from a big trade show in Germany with a long list of leads. “It took four years to access government funding to go to the trade fair, but it could be a game changer for us – people loved our stuff because it’s quirky and different.”
In the showroom on the way out, I finger a soft, fine shawl and Adele reminds me with a chuckle that the best quality mohair comes from kid goats. “If your mohair is scratchy, it’s from an old goat.”
Heart Felt Creations
- 082 853 4109
The Workshop Art & Craft Gallery
- 073 392 9436
- 046 675 1090
Sunshine Coast Tourism
- 046 624 1235