What looms large in the Overberg? A magical revival of the ancient craft of weaving…
Words: Marianne Heron
Pictures: David Morgan
There’s a fairy-tale fascination about weaving and the way it creates all manner of fabrics from gossamer thread. No wonder the Ancient Romans, Egyptians and Greeks had goddesses devoted to weaving – symbols of industry and self-sufficiency – and that weaving features in magical tales like those of the Brothers Grimm.
In Ancient Egyptian mythology, Neith was the goddess of weaving and in Greek tradition Athena held sway over looms. In the Grimms’ tale The Six Swans, six princes are turned into swans by a witch, and their faithful sister has to weave six shirts for them from the fragile stitchwort plant to counteract the spell.
In the Grimm story The Spindle, the Shuttle and the Needle, the humble village maiden’s implements fly off to trace her princely suitor. Where better to seek weavers than the Overberg – a land beyond the mountains, where even the landscape of fields resembles a magical patchwork?
Where other ancient crafts have fallen away, a fascination with weaving lives on and, in one instance, is woven through a modern story of salvation. Tivane Mavuma was forced to leave his native Mozambique when the civil war of 1977-92 displaced five million people, and made it impossible for him to work. He found sanctuary in neighbouring Swaziland, initially working there for missionaries.
When master weaver Rudi Bagman arrived from Germany to set up a carpet-weaving business in 1985, he took on Tivane as his first trainee. “Weaving really was for me,” says Tivane about finding his métier. The fledgling weaving enterprise in Swaziland grew and went on to become Shiba Handicraft.
Coincidentally, Carol Morris was running a farm-based Angora knitwear project in Swaziland and needed some woven products to add to her range. Tivane began to supply her, working in the evenings after his day job. When Carol later moved to Barrydale in the southern Cape, Tivane visited her there and, despite warnings about exchanging a tropical climate for a colder one, never returned, persuading Carol to start up her textile business again.
“And when I did everything just fell into place,” says Carol, taking up the story that began in 2007. “We found premises and people heard about us and donated looms, and then we bought some more.” Together Carol and Tivane set up a skills and job-creation project, training local women to produce 100 per cent cotton, hand-woven rugs, towels and household textiles.
And so Barrydale Hand Weavers was born, initially in what was once the Belanti Cinema. Later the studio moved to where it is a show stopper on Route 62, where the clacking of looms as 15 local women weave cotton towels, cushion covers, scarves and rugs draws visitors to investigate.
In its own way the business, where Carol is finance manager and Tivane is production manager and weaving instructor, is a miracle. At a time when the South African textile industry has been decimated by foreign imports, Barrydale Hand Weavers is flourishing. “What we are doing is producing something where the texture and quality can’t be mass produced, and luckily for us there is a huge public out there who wants what we do,” says Carol.
We watch as Tivane calmly sets up the warps of a loom, evoking an art that has hardly changed over the centuries. The process looks dauntingly complex but for Tivane it’s second nature. “It needs to be done slowly and carefully and once you have perfect warps you know everything is going to be all right,” says Tivane. “Everyone can learn to weave.”
More surprises lay in store as we travelled west from Barrydale towards Greyton, where we met weaver Anja Volk, who was born in Hannover, Germany.
“I grew up in post-war Germany, where as children we had to learn to do things for ourselves,” she tells us. In her Greyton home are half a dozen different looms, from a replica tweed loom to an inkle loom (used to make braid ), several of which were made for her by her late husband Fritz . “I have had this passion forever,” she continues. “One day in 1974, after a not very successful holiday in Germany, my husband said to me, ‘Why don’t you find something you really want to do, to make life worthwhile?’ I replied that I’d like a spinning wheel, and to this day I don’t know why I said that.”
Spinning led naturally to weaving, and the evidence of Anja’s fascination with the craft can be seen throughout her home – in curtains, cushions, bedspreads, wall hangings and even woven pictures. “Handling yarns is one of the pleasures of weaving,” she tells me. “And then there’s the organisation of what you are going to do. You have to plan everything in advance, and only then can you sit down and weave. Weaving is the bonus for all that you have done before. It has taught me a helluva lot of discipline.”
Her husband, a metallurgist and engineer, arrived in South Africa with Anja in the Sixties, when he was offered a job in the mining industry. The couple decided to stay. “The best decision we ever made,” says Anja. Weaving became her mainstay both in Johannesburg and later when the couple retired to Greyton.
“I took courses in Johannesburg, joined the Weavers Guild, taught and worked for the South African Wool Board. I used to work on commissions but these days I make presents. I inherited my grandmother’s tablecloth woven on her family farm and I translated the pattern and wove copies of it for all my female relatives, as a towel.” More than 30 of them.
Not far from Greyton, in the Overberg mission village of Genadendal, we are struck by a vibrancy of colour when we find the group of women known as the affectionately known as the Genadendal ‘Weaver Birds’ – their nickname refers to the weaver birds (Ploceidae family) that weave the most elaborate nest of any South African bird. In the Anglican church hall where the ladies weave, rainbow shades light up cotton rugs on upright hand looms, and dazzle from a pile of finished work on display. The mood in the hall is upbeat, with lots of laughter and music playing (a little like the sociable chatter of a weaver-bird colony).
Hand weaving provides an income for these women and their extended families, thanks to an initiative launched six years ago by the Kraal Gallery, a Somerset West-based firm with a tradition of hand weaving stretching back two generations. “We wanted to see if we could do some good,” says Alexander Daniel, MD of the Kraal Gallery.
His father Frank founded Cape Tapestry Weavers in 1982 after he retired from a hand-woven carpet business based in Hazyview, Mpumalanga, and the Daniels taught weaving to women from disadvantaged communities like Sir Lowry’s Pass Village and Genadendal, so that they could become breadwinners.
Genadendal, originally the first mission station in South Africa, founded in 1738 by Moravian Georg Schmidt as a mission for the Khoi, later became a place of sanctuary for escaped slaves who were educated and taught crafts by the missionaries. The Daniels wanted to do the same.
On our visit we are fascinated to watch the designs – from zebras to fish – taking shape as the women work the weft (horizontal) yarn back and forth through the warp (vertical) yarn, which is suspended tautly on the loom. “Each of the pieces is original,” explains tapestry designer Marcel Herholdt.
“The ladies choose their own colours. Some of the designs are their own so they are able to express themselves completely.” Jacqueline September has been weaving from the start of the project in 2008, after an initial training of eight months. “Every day I learn interesting new things,” she says.
The Weaver Birds’ bags and rugs are woven from 100 per cent upcycled magisch (selvage trim from cotton T-shirting discarded by the textile industry). Some of the pieces are woven free-form (as opposed to straight across) so that so that the design takes shape almost like a painting.
The money and self-confidence gained from the project have helped the Weaver Birds become leaders in their community in Genadendal. Alexander Daniel hopes that his firm’s projects will have what he calls a ‘beacon effect’. “We are trying to encourage people who want to help others but don’t know how to do so, by fostering willingness to learn.”
One of the gallery’s latest initiatives can be seen at their Somerset West showrooms where some of the weavers from the Sir Lowry’s Pass community are at work on the largest looms in Africa, creating 24m² rugs in Karakul sheep’s wool for the American market.
When you take yarn and weave it you never know what will emerge: a lifelong passion, economic transformation or a covetable purchase.
- Barrydale Hand Weavers 028 572 1488, www.barrydaleweavers.co.za
- Kraal Gallery 021 856 2130 [email protected], www.thekraalgallery.com
- Anja Volk [email protected]
- Pretoria Weavers Guild [email protected], [email protected]
- Johannesburg Weavers Guild 011 787 4724, 011 646 0764, www.sites.google.com/site/jwsguild