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Queens of Crochet

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

Spinning a yarn has revived around the globe like never before. This is no truer than for Mpumalanga community-based project Ukuthunga Handmade. Their knots of love are weaving into the fabric of people’s lives in South Africa and abroad.

By: Anelle Whyte

Here’s the thing: Crochet is cool. So cool in fact that the resurgence of learning and passing on this ancient skill is evident, not only in the number of courses and workshops available but, judging by its prevalence on international catwalks, the likes of Valentino, Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera certainly seem to think so too. Heard of “yarn bombing”? Check out US based crochet artist London Kaye.

Interestingly, the origins of crochet are tricky to trace. Earliest known records date back to 1824, but evidence suggests that women, in particular, have been sharing crochet patterns since well before then. Having gained popularity in Europe in the 19th century, theories include that the craft evolved long before this from traditional practices in Iran, South America and China.

Ukuthunga Handmade

Born of the humble offer to teach people to crochet, Ukuthunga Handmade exudes virtue. Plant baskets, storage solutions, rugs and shopping bags to doorstops are some of the beautiful artisanal products created by the hands of these women. Baby range items include blankets, African animals and teddies.

“We are in a frighteningly exciting place. The organisation is evolving in a way we never imagined. Each day brings new opportunities and hope as we continue to grow,” says co-founder Tana van Schalkwyk.

From thread to thread, the original group of five has bloomed in the last two years to around 100 women from the Msholozi, Backdoor, Sabie and Mphakeni communities. Their recent recognition at the Mpumalanga Arts & Culture Awards enabled upfront purchase of three months’ stock.

Spontaneous praise and thanksgiving, through song and dance, impregnates the air in the small and simple, yet heart-warming shelter where these women live out their newly found gift. In addition to engendering an entrepreneurial spirit, this self-sufficient initiative offers a sense of purpose and hope – and is flexible in how it operates.

It affords the opportunity to come and go as you please, based on whether employment is secured elsewhere, be it permanent, seasonal or contract. In progress pieces are often taken home for completion.

The model for how earnings are split is perhaps one of the best out there: driving initiative and creativity while balancing equitable distribution in that everyone feels involved.

Innovating a one-off gem sees you earning individually from its sale. Making a standard piece sees the profit split evenly between the Ukuthunga craftswomen team. There are no margins elsewhere within in the business.

A Rigorous Training Programme

The best part: You don’t have to know how to crochet. It offers a rigorous training programme and quality control process to ensure only the best quality (and exquisitely) handcrafted pieces are sold. Purchasing something from Ukuthunga is acquiring a one-of-a-kind artwork. Not to mention its good cause.

Former teacher Leah Mavimbela has returned to her calling as chief of crochet training. She also leads innovation – some of her pioneering work includes the giraffe, warthog, hippo, lion and llama soft toys.

“I feel that I belong. We are a community with dignity and hope that puts food on the table. The work we do has far surpassed expectation.

Our vision is to generate a R1 000 supplement income for each person. The golden number to achieve financial impetus would be securing a single order of 1 000 pieces,” says Leah.

Their pieces are available to buy from their Facebook page online and at local boutiques and retailers. Promising conversations with businesses at home and further afield could see Ukuthunga’s net cast even wider. Ukuthunga is NPO registered and also makes bespoke corporate and wedding guest gifts.



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