Reviving Old Crafts in Swellendam

Words and pictures by Marion Whitehead

The beauty of wood and finely crafted furniture has a timeless appeal. However, few people today have the skills to reproduce pieces such as the Chevalet de Marqueterie standing in the cabinet-making workshop of the Ambagswerf at the Drostdy Museum in Swellendam.

“It’s a reproduction of a 1780 French drawing. It’s probably the only one in Africa,” says Guy Lochner proudly as he shows me around the neat workshop where many of the traditional tools on display look like artworks themselves.

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Guy Lochner with the reconstructed watermill in the Ambagswerf, one of the few undershot watermills in the Overberg, which he restored to working order.

Traditional crafts are currently undergoing a revival worldwide and the museum is busy turning the Ambagswerf (trade yard) into a living heritage space, where a new generation of interns can be taught old skills. Sylvester Serfontein is the first intern and demonstrates how to use an old-fashioned plane at the workbench.

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Intern Sylvester Serfontein demonstrates how to use an old-fashioned plane in the neat cabinetmakers’ workshop at the Drostdy Museum’s Ambagswerf.

He says one of the first things he did with these new skills was fix his mom’s door at home. His skills have grown by leaps and bounds and he shows off the finely balanced adze with a handle of Knysna blackwood that he made under the guidance of Rob Harrison, a local enthusiast who is part of the museum’s support group of passionate woodworkers that include a retired doctor, farmer, diamond diver and aircraft engineer.

“We want to get youngsters excited enough to get their hands dirty, or there will be no one left who knows how to use these tools,” says Guy about the living exhibition. “We started with the cabinet-making workshop and do a lot of restorations for museums and bespoke pieces.”

And it’s all done without Eskom, he says wryly, pointing out a foot-powered lathe.

The Ambagswerf was the brainchild of former curator Dr Mary Alexander Cook in 1969 and she worked on the design with renowned heritage architect Gawie Fagan to exhibit crafts that were once part of daily life in a small frontier town, such as Swellendam once was in the days of the Cape Colony. Other trades will soon get the same ‘living skills’ treatment, with the appointment of interns, and include blacksmithing, tailoring, leatherworking, spinning and weaving. “The idea is that we will produce goods to sell and offer courses as we go along,” says Guy. This will make the project more sustainable than a static exhibition.

Their model is the Colonial Williamsburg Museum, a major tourist attraction in Virginia USA, where the town’s revolutionary history is brought alive.

Swellendam’s first living heritage festival, held on Heritage Day on 24 September 2016, was a roaring success. “We baked bread the old-fashioned way in the Dutch oven,” enthuses Christiane Dreismann, a Swellendam resident who is also a skilled weaver.

The Drostdy Museum comprises 21 buildings spread over 16 hectares that form the heart of the ‘Golden Mile’ of Swellendam’s heritage area, which is a magnet for local and international visitors. The museum is run by a board of trustees on behalf of the community and is not a state museum.

If you have old tools and equipment that can help revive the traditional crafts, Guy asks that you consider donating them to the Ambagswerf project.

Drostdy Museum

028 514 1138

www.drostdy.com