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CULTURE-SOUTH AFRICA: Crafts That Steal Hearts All Over the World

Stephanie Nieuwoudt

CAPE TOWN, Aug 21 2008 (IPS) - It is early on a Monday morning and Margret Woermann is late for her interview with IPS. The owner and creative force behind the Heartworks shops is at a meeting discussing a project with a clothing designer.

Richly embroidered cloth hearts at Heartworks, Cape Town. Credit:  Stephanie Nieuwoudt/IPS

Richly embroidered cloth hearts at Heartworks, Cape Town. Credit: Stephanie Nieuwoudt/IPS

In the meantime an American woman is waiting in the trendy Kloof Street shop in the heart of the Cape Town central business district (CBD) to discuss a possible export opportunity with her. A craftsperson strolls in off the street, asking if his wire and bead creations can be sold in the shop.

Woermann's three shops – all based in Cape Town, a city popular with European tourists – have been described as part business and part community project. The shops carry objects from craftspeople from all over South Africa and its neighbouring countries. Many of these objects are the work of people like the man who strolled into the shop.

The numbers of craftspeople who supply her shop change all the time, as some only make objects on a once-off basis. According to Woermann she regularly buys from about 100 craftspeople. Each craftsperson supports a family – often his or her income is the only source of income for a large number of people.

‘‘Sometimes I see potential and make some suggestions to the artist to make the object more sellable,’’ Woermann says in her interview with IPS. ‘‘If people come back with what I want, I will place an order.’’

Woermann also employs a full-time team of 35 embroiderers who create teddy bears and hearts made from fabric.

At the one shop, 22-year-old Papama Mnyakama tells IPS, ‘‘I love embroidery because every figure I embroider tells a story. I create people carrying things, flowers and animals and they each say something to those who take the time to look at them.’’

Her work as shop assistant has opened up many opportunities for her: ‘‘I started working as an embroiderer two years ago and a year ago I got the job as shop assistant. When I started working for Heartworks, I had no other form of income.

‘‘Because of my job I can start planning the future of my son, who is five years old. Without this work there would not have been any future.’’

Mnyakama says she has always wanted to work with people – she did a secretarial course but could not find work – and as a shop assistant she meets interesting people from all over the world. However, she still embroiders when she gets a chance. Mnyakama's sister, one of her cousins and her mother also work for Heartworks.

Dorcas Mavu (43) supplements the income she gets from sewing for others in her community by embroidering for Heartworks. She earns anything between 500 rand (65 dollars) and 2,000 rand (260 dollars) per month.

‘‘It all depends on how hard I feel like working during the month. If I work hard, I make more money because I get paid per item. I enjoy working for Heartworks because I love sewing and embroidery,’’ Mavu enthuses.

From a South African perspective, the objects’ prices seem high. ‘‘It is important for me to pay the people who work for me a fair wage. I also pay them transport costs. Labour has a certain amount of hours attached to it and eventually the costs are translated into the price of the object,’’ Woermann explains.

‘‘Unfortunately many people believe crafts have to be inexpensive because in the past it could be picked up quite cheaply on the side of the road.’’

The first shop opened its doors in 2000. A friend asked Woermann to join her in an embroidery project. ‘‘I was not working at that stage and agreed.’’ After two months the friend opted out of the venture, and Woermann carried on alone.

By naming the business Heartworks, she gave a nod to the world of fine art, which she describes as serious, mysterious and inaccessible to many people. At the same time the name reflects the emotional associations of the objects.

A shipment of teddy bears are ready to be sent to a children's psychiatric ward in Oslo, Norway, where it is believed traumatised children will more readily tell the teddy bears what happened to them than relate their stories to an adult.

‘‘The teddy bears and the hearts basically sell themselves,’’ Woermann says. The bears, made of black cloth and covered in brightly coloured and intricate embroidery stitches, are also extremely popular in overseas markets.

The bears are sought after in a number of overseas retail outlets and monthly exports of these beautiful objects are worth about 25,000 rand (about 3,247 dollars).

Cushions made from camouflage cloth and embroidered in contrasting pieces of cloth with words like love and peace will be on display at the Maison d'Objet trade fair in Paris in September this year. By using these words with camouflage fabric, Woermann wants to subvert the negativity of war.

She was in a fabric shop when she thought that it would be interesting to use camouflage cloth which is associated with conflict. ‘‘I asked the crafters to add words and flowers and butterflies to give it a Woodstock-hippy feel. My agent from Paris submitted the cushions to the fair and it was accepted for one of the Trends pavilions. These pavilions showcase items that indicate a trend.’’

The 35 women work mostly from home, but there is also an opportunity for the embroiderers and the two seamstresses to meet once a week at the Heartworks shop at the Old Biscuit Mill, a few kilometres outside the Cape Town CBD.

Although Woermann supplies most of the materials needed to create the teddy bears and the other needlework items, the embroiderers have to buy thread at a subsidised rate: ‘‘We used a huge amount of thread when I supplied it for free. We use much less now.’’

Woermann is serious about recycling and her shops are filled with items which have been given a new life. There are fridge magnets made from bottle caps, curtains made from plastic bottle tops and small containers and brooches made from all kinds of found objects.

There is a playfulness in the plastic milk containers which have become animal heads. These objects can be interpreted as satirical comment on the terribly chi chi style trend, using antelope horns and skulls as décor items, or simply as a naïve interpretation of the very expensive horns found in upmarket shops.

When Woermann is asked about supporting people living with HIV/AIDS, she frowns: ‘‘No, I do not focus on people with HIV/AIDS. I am sure that some of the workers and suppliers are HIV positive, but I do not believe in giving people work because of their HIV status. Each object that is sold has to stand on its own.

‘‘The most important thing about my shops is that I am able to give people, especially the women who embroider, a chance to be creative and to earn an income. Most of them have no other source of income. It is wonderful to know that you have given somebody an opportunity to improve their life.’’

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