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Visiting Coral Stephens Handweaving, Sept 2017

The name that says it all.[/caption] Last week saw my second visit to the well established and internationally recognized home of ‘Coral Stephens Handweaving’ in Piggs Peak, northern Swaziland. A little background at this point might be a good idea. Coral Stephens and her husband went to live in the magnificent Northern region of Swaziland shortly after the second World War. He was a forester charged with the task of establishing a forestry industry in Swaziland,  and Coral was essentially a housewife who needed curtains and carpets for her new house. Piggs Peak must have seemed like the last outpost in those days, and Coral’s only real option was to make her own, so she set about learning the rudiments of spinning and weaving herself, before passing the skills on to local women (who quickly became proficient) , and so, ” Coral Stephens Handweaving” was born. Established in 1949, the business grew to become Swazliand’s largest exporter, with an international reputation synonymous with style, elegance, and above all, quality. [caption id="attachment_872" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Sitting on the floor in a sunny spot happily                     carding mohair prior to spinning[/caption] Coral’s fibre of choice was mohair, and it remains so to this day with the majority of carpets, curtains and blankets being made from handspun mohair. The mohair arrives in great bales, and every process, from the basic plucking and separating of the locks to final finishing, is carried out by hand, by a small army of skilled and loyal Swazi women. [caption id="attachment_874" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Spun and dyed mohair ready for use.[/caption] Carding is done by hand, using the normal handcarders with which we are all familiar, and on this trip, I took with me a drum carder for them to try. It was, at first regarded with great suspicion, and the first batt was scrutinized, and analysed and pulled apart before it was accepted as being good enough to pass on to one of the spinners. By the end of the week however, it had been accepted into the routine and was working overtime as everyone had to see how it worked, and how easy it made the whole process! The thick yarn which is used for the carpets is  spun entirely by hand. The ladies painstakingly twist the fibres together with their fingers, winding the yarn around the legs of an upturned bench as they go to hold it in place before it is tied into skeins and taken for dyeing. The finer yarns, such as that used for the curtaining or blankets, is spun on spinning wheels at a speed which made my eyes water, but beautifully spun none the less. [caption id="attachment_878" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Mohair skeins to be wound onto bobbins for weaving yardage for curtains[/caption] [caption id="attachment_900" align="aligncenter" width="300"] The dyehouse and spinning shed surrounding by the majestic trees .[/caption] Dyeing is done in an outhouse where stainless steel vats are heated by wood-fires. The smell of the wood smoke, and the slight haze in the air is ever present, and I find myself missing it on the days when there is no dyeing in process! My main area of interaction is of course with the weavers. Although all the weavers are familiar with each process of the weaving, from making the warps and winding the bobbins, to physically sitting and throwing the shuttle, each women also has her own field of specialty so to speak. Maria is the matriarch, closely shadowed by Sisana and Goodness. They work on huge looms, complete with flying shuttles and produce metres of fabric every day, often working into the evening if they have not managed to complete their quota for the week. There are two ladies who spend their days winding bobbins for the weavers so that the important work of the day can be carried on with minimal interruption. Goodness and Pindile make most of the warps – and they make this potentially backbreaking task look like a walk in the park. Goodness is also the loom expert, being adept at changing tie-ups and trouble shooting problems. Sithekele and Zanele, are of the second rank of weaver’s, focusing on the smaller items and working on the smaller looms. They are also involved with encouraging the three new weavers who are moving up. [caption id="attachment_899" align="aligncenter" width="300"] A magnificent grey and natural carpet panel coming off the loom.[/caption] The ladies who weave the carpets work two to a loom in order to make this physically demanding job a little lighter, and then there is a whole bevy of people who only work on the finishing of the items. Putting a new warp on to the looms is a team effort of note – four ladies hold on to the warp, two wind it on, and one of the senior weavers sits and makes sure that there are no snags on cross sticks or raddle which would lead to breaking threads. I watched in open mouthed amazement as they wound a 30m warp on to the roller in the space of thirty minutes!! The remainder of the day was spent tying the new warp on to the old (1430 ends) and weaving re-commenced at 7.30 the following morning. [caption id="attachment_898" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Winding on a warp Swazi style.[/caption] There is a happy and relaxed atmosphere in the weaving shed, with much laughter. The ladies are aware of how privileged they are to work for Coral Stephens, but they have little idea of how sought after their work is. The fact that this carpet or that curtaining will eventually grace a penthouse in New York or an apartment in London means little to them as such places are so far out of the realm of anything they are likely to experience in their lives. [caption id="attachment_877" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Happiness is a big loom and knowing how to use it![/caption] A poor community with generally only rudimentary education, the Swazi’s are deeply religious. Work begins at 7 am, and when they break for breakfast – or what they call ” Bread time”, they spend the half hour singing hymns, praying and reading the bible. Not wishing to intrude on this time, I like to sit in the garden and listen to the beautiful, uninhibited music that flows from them. The most important things in their lives are their families, their country and their King, but when they leave to go home in the evening, they wear their track suit tops with the Coral Stephens name on with a certain amount of pride, knowing that their skills and services are recognized and appreciated by an employer who truly does have their best interests at heart.

  • Please feel free to visit my gallery page for more photographs from my wonderful week in Piggs Peak.
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6 thoughts on “Visiting Coral Stephens Handweaving, Sept 2017

  1. Well, that puts my weaving in its proper place!
    Lovely old looms, nice materials and people who are truly dedicated to weaving. That’s all there is to say!

    1. I agree, nothing more to say. I am really very privileged to have the opportunity to work with these ladies.

  2. What an amazing and inspiring story! Thank you for sharing it.

    1. Hello Kathy! Thank you for reading and commenting. I am really very lucky indeed to have the opportunity to visit Coral Stephens Handweaving from time to time.

  3. wonderfully written. I can certainly understand why you are enjoying your trips to Swaziland so much. This is down to earth weaving, good honest hand work.

    1. Indeed – it is very rare to find a company who respects the skills inherent in even the most basic of tasks performed by hand.

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