When a peaceful vacation town in the rural Eastern Cape was bombed, tourism stopped and so did business at our mohair groups once established café. Defiant of the then suppressive apartheid government, Adele, the owner, offered jobs to women in hopes of raising self esteem and self worth. “Many worked behind closed doors with escape routes planned if officials arrived unexpectedly,” she explains. “Those were tough times. Mothers were desperate to feed and educate their children. When your children are starving, it’s hard to see the bigger picture.”
The group survived the political turmoil, and has been working with Be Sweet for the past seven years and is the largest group Be Sweet works with.
In the Eastern Cape current unemployment is above 70% and the only job options are domestic help and working in pineapple fields. The thriving program is the largest in the area, employing over 50 women. These artisans hand-spin and hand-dye various mohair yarns; many are offered in over 75 colors. Luckily mohair is the white gold of South Africa. The fiber was once so rare it was only worn by royalty and is today getting back into high-fashion.
“Knitting is so versatile, easy to take with you and works well for people who have part time jobs. You can especially do it while watching the kids” says Francis, organizer of this St. Francis based knititng group. “I noticed so many unemployed Sea Vista residents, that’s when I started a knitting circle. I knew learning a skill would raise their self esteem and be invaluable to their future.”
The group started with just two knitters and has grown to 15 in a year. From making squares and knitting them into blankets, these artisans are now using high-end organic cotton, bamboo and mohair, provided by Be Sweet, to knit baby blankets, sweaters, and booties.
Mielie is a group that creates our range of fabulous off-beat handbags, accessories, and T-Shirt yarn made from recycled materials. They use as little machinery as possible, thereby creating as many jobs as possible. To make the range of products they employ many age-old and time-consuming techniques, such as hooked rugging, crochet and knotting. They are committed to creating opportunity, for instance a single bag passes through four pairs of hands; a weaver, a sticther-up, a liner and a handle-attacher.
The Fa-Mielie is constantly growing with confidence and self-esteem. Many have developed their spoken and written English as a result of working at Mielie. It has been wonderful to see the weavers taking pride in their work, and becoming bolder with their color choices! There is healthy competition to be the ‘best’ at the various designs, for instance Zanele is very proud of being the only weaver who can do a crayfish, and Ndileka is the queen of strawberries! Mielie has a dream to make a difference in their artisans’ lives and communities. To ultimately, spark a connection between those who buy the products and those who make them, creating a thread of understanding between individuals who are worlds apart.
The fastest growing group that Be Sweet works with is run by a former nurse. She trains local artisans to assist her with dying, spinning, and balling our bamboo and cotton yarns. For one woman in particular, Sylvia (or Nontuthuzelo which is her Xhosa name), this work has changed her life.
Looking at Sylvia and her husband Tamsanqa’s home, a cozy place fully furnished with a refrigerator, and washing machine, you would never guess that she once worked for the lowest pay in the country. Until three years ago, Sylvia supported her two children and sick husband as a farm worker. Sylvia and Tamsanqa are now able to work full time from their home and make ten times what they were earning before. They are supporting their eldest daughter to get a college level education and are making consistent home improvements including a new indoor plumbing system and soon, a new fence. Sylvia enjoys setting her own work schedule and attending church on the weekends.
Lila, a Sanskrit word meaning ‘the play of universal creativity’ is a small textile handcraft project working with disadvantaged women. Cotton, silk, wool and recycled materials are what they use along with ancient and innovative handcraft techniques, to create beautiful fiber mobiles and embroidered felt shapes. The director travels to townships to teach and drop off materials to male and female artisans. In Kayelitsha, Cape Town she works with a group of home-crafters, in Thembaletu she works with a HIV support group. Artisans often take their work home, allowing them to care for their children while earning a living.
Confidence, happiness, self-worth and purpose are a few of the benefits artisans receive through their contribution to Lila. For some of the artisans this is the first time they have earned money. Lila enables the team of dedicated crafters to change their lives while developing skills.