K A R O S S ™  |  Hand-embroidered Shangaan Textiles - press books

By: Kaross  11-11-2011
Keywords: Embroidery

1. Image and Text. A Journal for Design.

Edited by Prof. J. van Eden and released by the Department of Visual Arts and History of Art of The University of Pretoria. Published in 1994.

2. Material Matters.

Appliqués by the Weya Women of Zimbabwe and Needlework by South African Collectives. Edited and curated by Brenda Schmahmann, Published in 2000 by Witwatersrand University Press.

MAKING, MEDIATING, MARKETING. Three Contemporary Projects. By Brenda Schmahmann. (p119-136)

Needlework projects share the aim of upgrading the lives of people in disadvantaged communities by facilitating the production of works via needles and thread. But the circumstances in which projects are initiated, the ways in which they are organized and the types of works they produce are enormously diverse. In this essay, I aim to demonstrate this diversity by examining three different needlework projects- Kaross™ Workers in the Northern Province, Mapula in the North West and Simunye in Mpumalalnga.

Kaross™ Workers and Mapula were set up before the first democratic election, and they addressed and tried to remedy some of the economic difficulties that black communities suffered under apartheid. But principles that might be adopted to structure projects democratically were not always issues of discussions or debate in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and, if examined in a post-apartheid context, aspects of the organization of these projects could well be criticized. While one would want to recognize their achievements and indicate that both projects have developed- indeed flourished- in recent years, it is also helpful to analyse, and account for, their vulnerabilities. The long-term prospects of Simunye, which was constituted in the early months of 1999, still remain a matter of speculation. One might nonetheless observe that this project was initiated and structured through processes different from those deployed by Kaross™ Workers and Mapula, and consider whether or not some of these differences might work in its favour.

"..On yet another level, a successful project might be regarded as one that has granted women a 'voice' or an opportunity to develop their 'creativity'.."

While one of my aims is to assess the success of these three projects, it also needs to be recognised that 'success' is in fact a relative term. On one level, a successful project might be understood to be one that secures a steady income for a large number of participants. On another, success might be determined by the degree to which needle workers have been validated by winning awards, having their works included in public collections, or receiving important commissions. On yet another level, a successful project might be regarded as one that has granted women a 'voice' or an opportunity to develop their 'creativity'. A project that is successful in one respect may not be so in terms of another, and needlework collectives differ in the emphasis they accord to these various objectives.

Needlework projects have not necessarily been initiated by people within the communities in which they operate, by people who I would term 'insiders', but rather by well-meaning individuals who are not from those communities, people I would term 'outsiders'. Or, if an insider initiates a project, an outsider will often be employed to provide assistance. An outsider will generally have useful contacts as well as a developed understanding of the prospective market for needlework, and will thus be in a position to assist a project in finding its feet (p119).


Elbé Coetzee. Published 2002, Struik Publishers.


Although 'kaross' derives from a Khoisan word for blanket of skins sewn together, the kaross™ Workers have adapted this concept to sit on a blanket and create cotton table cloths, placemats and two ranges of wall-hangings. Irma designed the initial range, which makes use of eye-catching images, dramatic patterns and striking colour combinations that cover an entire piece of black fabric in a variety of embroidery stitches. This range is aimed at the tourist market and remains popular. Currently Solomon Mohati and Winnie Sabela, who were trained by Irma to draw the designs, contribute to the development of these designs.

"..personal experience, dreams and imagination..traditional themes such as weddings, ritual ceremonies and Christian Symbols.."

A second range of larger wall hangings- popular as collectors' items- incorporates images created by artist Kelvin Mahlaule, who draws on personal experience, dreams and imagination, as well as traditional themes such as weddings, ritual ceremonies and Christian Symbols.

"The embroiderers collect their materials from the Kaross™ workshop, complete a project at home and return it for evaluation and payment."

Dedicated to job creation and upliftment in South Africa, Irma has successfully combined creativity with sound business practices. The embroiderers collect their materials from the Kaross™ workshop, complete a project at home and return it for evaluation and payment. Kaross™ products are sold in shops and galleries throughout South Africa and are also exported to the USA, Australia, Germany and Singapore.


Susan Sellschop, Wendy Goldblatt and Doreen Hemp. Published 2002, Pan Macmillan SA (Pty) Ltd.


Mapula-meaning 'mother of rain'- is a project in the Winterveldt, a semi rural area about 45 kilometres north of Pretoria. It was started about 10 years ago as a collaborative effort between the women of Winterveldt, the Sisters of Mercy in the region and a group from Soroptomists International.

Initially, all embroidery work took place at the mission but, for the last few years, half the women have been embroidering on their own, and delivering their completed works to Rossinah Maepa, a group coordinator. Usually, one person does the embroidery, but occasionally there is collaboration on larger works or commissions.

More than 80 needle workers belong to Mapula, earning a living from creating colourful embroidered works. Rossinah was invited to take embroideries to the Celebrate South Africa exhibition in London in 2001, and her comment on her return to South Africa was: 'it was the first trip but not the last. I believe I will fly again. I am proud of the Mapula project because it changed my poor life to a better one.'. Her dream is to build a house for herself and her family and to be able to give her children an education- a dream that is fast becoming a reality for Rossinah and her co-workers in the Mapula project. In its early stages, members of Mapula embroidered cushion covers and calico shirts, but the embroidered cloths and wall hangings have proved to be especially successful and have provided the embroidered with the widest scope for innovation. The designs are drawn onto fabric in crayon, sometimes with the assistance of Rossinah or her daughter, or one of the other women with design skills. Illustrations of animals or painted Ndebele homesteads are popular, as are images drawn from posters and photographs in newspapers of figureheads, including Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, or sportsmen and entertainers. Some cloths are embroidered with signs from Arrive Alive safe-driving campaign or posters from the AIDS education programmes.

"Karosswerkers..has undergone shifts from the imagery it used when it began." Karosswerkers

is an equally dynamic embroidery project in Letsitele close to Tzaneen in Limpopo Province, and has undergone shifts from the imagery it used when it began. In the early years, Irma van Rooyen, who began the project, designed the embroideries with geometric border surrounding a central field of stylised animals and foliage. Later, Solomon Mohati began to execute some of the drawings, incorporating forms found on local craft objects, and now Kelvin Mahaule has joined the group and uses references to oral histories or scenes from contemporary life on the cloths.

The Karosswerkers project began in 1988 on the orange farm Irma and her husband had purchased. Initially, five women joined the project, but it has since grown to about 600 people - a huge enterprise that includes participants from surrounding farms as well as villages and settlements up to 100 kilometres away. Among many talented women is Flora Ngobeni who, won an FNB Vita Craft Award in 2000 for her embroidery.

Keywords: Embroidery

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K A R O S S ™  |  Hand-embroidered Shangaan Textiles - press

Kaross is very excited to be exhibiting at the Ambiente 2011 trade fair in Frankfurt Germany. We will be attending as part of the South African pavilion in Hall 8, Stand E70.