Fancy Stitch South Africa

Fancy Stitch

“Embroidery is a skill you can always use,” explains Maryna Heese, Art Director of the Fancy Stitch initiative. Such pragmatism is needed in the rural community of Ingwavuma in the far north of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa where the project is based. The project’s Financial Manager, Cris Higham, explains the harsh reality of the area: “The community is ravaged by the AIDS pandemic, with up to 50% of the community infected within specific age groups and 100% affected by this awful disease.” Fancy Stitch supports the poorest members of the community, predominantly women, many of whom are now raising grandchildren who have otherwise been orphaned by the pandemic. “The money they gain is often the only family income, other than government grants,” Higham notes. “With this the women continue to build houses, feed families, clothe children and send them to school. Currently we benefit about 440 people, while it can be assumed that each person supports, on average 4, dependants.”

The initiative began in 2001 when a women’s centre was built in Ingwavuma. The traditional textiles of KwaZuluNatal are made from leather and decorated with traditional Zulu beadwork, a craft that has long been considered women’s work. Embroidery with thread on cloth is a new way of working and provides a desperately needed source of livelihood. Heese explains that her choice of embroidery came from a desire to “start something unique, not piggy back on another project.” After reading a how-to embroidery book, which introduced different types of stitches, she determined that the portable, low cost skill would be suitable for the development initiative and her instinct has proven correct: from the twenty-seven women who joined the project in 2001, 420 women now gain income from the embroidery they stitch in their homes today.

Most of the women in the local area have basic sewing skills, but embroidery, Heese admits, is not the same. After the initial basic stitch training women are asked to embroider any image that they would like to depict in an effort to “find the artists amongst the group”, she explains. “Artists are born, they have ability from the start,” she observes, and “it is sad to take women with ability and make them copy [which is the scope of the Fancy Stitch ‘craft’ production] – this is boring for them.” Initial training is provided to those who enjoy and have an aptitude for embroidery, but too much further technical embroidery teaching is avoided. “If I teach too many stitches, creativity is lost,” Heese notes, explaining that “from my observation you tend to loose spontaneity and innovation when there is the perception that only the stitches you have been taught can be used in an artwork.”

“I never want to say no,” she admits of those who express interest in work. “I could exclude a jewel,” she worries, recalling that some of the most artistically creative contributions to the project have come from those with no prior experience, or the brothers and uncles who have joined the project after seeing the work of family members. Ultimately, Fancy Stitch is grounded first in much needed income generation. For this reason the initiative has worked to find ways to incorporate everyone. A ‘craft’ section has recently been organised to allow a role for anyone who wants to be involved regardless of creative ability. For others, there is the opportunity to work with papermaking or production such as fixing the embroideries onto greeting cards. The women engaged with embroidery buy their materials from the twenty colours of cotton stocked at a subsidized cost by Fancy Stitch and are paid immediately for the work they complete. A further royalty is paid when artwork is sold – intended both as an incentive and to help balance the cash flow of the project, which is registered as a charity. Seventeen full-time staff then turn the embroidery into products such as greeting cards.

Productivity is determined by the seasons. Higham explains, “Many women take all the materials they can get. But in summer months, when the fields need ploughing, the work comes back more slowly than in the winter when there is more demand for materials because many have more time.” In spite of the opportunity the project provides to the community, the work is not for everyone. “Embroidery is time consuming and some people start well and then realise it takes so long,” Heese acknowledges.

A typical design cycle starts with the development of a drawn picture. Heese offers guidance on the composition but encourages individuals to develop their own style and content. A strong narrative element is often included using imagery that is drawn from life. Artistic freedom is encouraged, but a certain style is evident: solid blocks of colour and sequential imagery are popular and changes of scale are common within a single composition. Certificates accompany the embroideries detailing the maker’s life and an explanation of the work’s content. Tragically, some of the artists have since passed away and their – often short – lives are noted. The inclusion of written explanatory text is a strategy is shared by other embroidery projects of the region, such as the Weya appliqué project of Zimbabwe documented by Brenda Schmahmann in Material Matters: Appliqués by the Weya Women of Zimbabwe and Needlework by South African Collectives.

Along with tourist mementos and gifts, the organisation takes in corporate orders for work such as company logos. A recent inquiry included the logo for the upcoming football world cup that will be held in South Africa later this year. The Fancy Stitch website, project shop and galleries across South Africa help with sales and attendance at trade shows in the past two years have further increased the profile of the women’s work. A hefty 30% of the business comes from their line of embroidered greeting cards. International exhibitions have also provided a way to share the initiative with a broader community. The University of London’s Brunei Gallery, for example, recently held an exhibition of Fancy Stitch work. The opportunity began when Heese googled embroidery and came across the exhibition of tapestries from the Wissa Wassef Art Centre, Cairo, Egypt held at the Brunei Gallery in 2006. Inspired, she made an appointment to meet John Hollingworth, the Galleries and Exhibitions Manager at the Brunei Gallery, while visiting England. Three years in the planning and the exhibition was realized with the assistance of Oxfam Australia who provided crucial financial support to purchase the artwork that went into the exhibition.

In the face of such harsh realities, the initiative continues to make remarkable progress – against the odds.

Fancy Stitch
P.O. Box 332
Ingwavuma 3968
KZN South Africa
Tel/Fax: + 27 (0)35 591 0027

Embroidery magazine (July/August 2010: 26-31)