We can find the Mapusha Weaving Studio on the outskirts of Acornhoek in the hills next to the Catholic Mission. The mission was originally founded in 1970 to give unemployed women a learned skill and a source of income. They chose the name Mapusha as a combination of words to signify the union of the two local tribes, the Mapulaneng and Shangaan.
Before building the studio, and launching the initiative, the mission sent two young women away to a successful weaving studio in Burgersfort for training. Here Regina and Linda were properly taught how to dye the various colours, and then spin and weave a loom. After two years, these ladies returned and the weaving studio was built and looms constructed. It was not long before many other women arrived to be taught weaving.
Most of them entered the Weaving Studio as young, unemployed girls. This was half a century ago, and they have stayed on, perfecting their craft well into their pension years. They make use of age-old techniques of dyeing, spinning, weaving and sewing that they have passed down to each other. Their love for using organic material has kept the craft pure, something which is getting harder to find nowadays.
Before the 1990s, when the Weaving Studio was at its peak, it had 26 women employed. The Catholic church used to commission them to weave biblical tapestries. Unfortunately, support from the mission decreased and by 2002, only 6 women remained. They were walking km’s every day to get to the studio, carrying heavy rugs on their heads. Sales were slow, as was their morale until a textile designer called Judy Miller discovered them and stepped in to help.
It was a chance meeting with six of the grandmothers working at the weaving studio that launched the next chapter of Judy’s life. It ended up being a mutually beneficial relationship that she forged with these women. She had just come off a year of cancer treatments, and through her time spent with these ladies, she saw their strength and determination. This inspired her to write a book about her experiences at the Mapusha Weaving Studio.
She gave them an internet presence and secured sponsorship for eight new ladies from the community to come in and learn by weaving a loom. She also sourced wool for them and found commissioned work for the women. With the pandemic in 2020, Judy stopped travelling to Hoedspruit and has now settled permanently in America. Because of her own personal circumstances, she no longer has any involvement with the weaving studio.
Although they are still using old techniques for weaving, the woman’s co-operative makes a point of keeping up with modern furnishing trends, all thanks to Judy. Now they make sure that there is diversity in all the designs. They incorporate abstract geometrical shapes in some and other tapestries are woven to be more realistic. These depict things like sheep or the countryside, a reflection of the world these ladies grew up in. Some looms are larger than the ladies themselves, and they end up standing on a brick for hours until their tapestry is woven.
In 2012, when the church grounds on which the workshop was situated increased the rent, it became unaffordable. Again, fortune smiled on these ladies and an American donor stepped up to save the day. They built the New Dawn Centre. It was perfect. The Seeds of Light art centre was next to it. It became a daily hub of activity in the area as gardens surrounded it and it had a borehole.
COVID hit. The woven tale of these wonderful ladies has ended in a shutdown weaving studio in dire need of repairs. It is going to take time to build the Mapusha Weaving Studio back up to its former glory. It can and will be done, and plans are in place to once again bring in commission pieces for the ladies to work on. Once the renovations to the studio are done, the elders of the studio will teach weaving a loom to the new generation, keeping the legacy intact.
For these craftswomen, this is how they will immortalise their tales of cultural pride and unity for the future. They heralded these indomitable women in the little town of Rooiboklaagte for the amazing work they all produce, as well as the good values they represent. Having this weaving studio in the area provides a great sense of stability and inspiration to the entire community, especially the women.
If you would like to become a part of this handspun hope on a loom, you can do so by either making a donation or by commissioning these ladies to create a beautiful tapestry woven to suit any colour scheme or dimension you choose.
Contact us for a rug, bags, tapestries, or even a bird or animal mobile.