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From where I sit at my loom with a view – yes there is actually a view to enjoy……

Winter in the Lowveld

For those of you who have wondered about the ” view” from my loom – well here is the view from the end of my driveway. Granted my loom doesn’t actually sit at the end of my driveway, but when my bum gets numb from sitting on the weaving bench, I can at least take a short stroll and admire ” my” mountain.

I know that it seems a little strange that we actually have quite such spectacular mountains in an area which is usually associated with flat roads, dust, dirt and thorn trees, but our little town sits in the shadow of the mighty Northern Drakensburg, pictured here on a particularly splendid Winter’s day – incredible sky, absolutely clear, not a breath of wind and a window to the world.

Everytime I take to the road en route to a workshop or a market on the Highveld, I drive through the Abel Erasmus Pass, which cuts through the mountains, and is truly, to my mind at least, one of the great mountain passes of this incredible country. The sides of the road through the pass are dotted here and there with vendors selling local fruit and avocados, or wooden curios and baskets – most of which come from Zimbabwe I’m sad to say, but I won’t go down that road right now, because about half way up ( or down as the case may be), there is an elderley Venda lady who weaves grass mats – indeed there is – believe it or not…

She isn’t always there, but when I see her, I take my life in my hands and pull off the winding road into a tiny lay-by and go and say hello, admire her work and give her a little money. Her loom is what we know as a “Donkey” loom and consists of two planks of wood laid parrallel (never figured out the spelling of that word), to each other with a small space in between, and supported on a pair of crossed sticks at either end to raise it off the ground.

Crossing the warp threads over each other – the mat in progress can be seen below the wooden plank

The threads she uses for the warp – in this case usually cheap string, or even bailing twine which has been scavenged from the nearby farmlands, are each wound around a small stone, or an old battery, and one would immediately think of a warp weighted loom but in fact, this arrangement works differently. Her “weft” comes from the reeds which grow in the Olifants River bed in the valley below. The reeds are split lengthways and the resulting pieces are painstakingly wrapped in pieces of plastic – usually what looks like the plastic that is used to package beer or cool-drink ‘ 6 packs’ .

The plastic is scavenged from the surrounding area and cut into strips before being wound around the sections of reed in a colourful cladding which is probably the principle appeal of the mats. The warp threads are laid across the space between the two planks, with the weights hanging over on either side. A piece of the brightly clad reed is placed over these weighted warp threads and the warp threads are crossed over the reed so that the weights now hang on the other side of the two planks. Another section of reed is laid in place, and the warp is crossed over that, and so the process continues…..

The reeds, I must just add, have leaves which are razor sharp and inflict paper-cuts on any unwary fingers, and the split sections are a minefield of splinters. The weaver sits cross legged on the ground (on one of her own mats actually) and manipulates the weighted warp threads in what must be a backbreaking process. It is the job of her daughter to split and cover the reeds, and her young grandchild sleeps in the shade nearby.

I am in awe of their industry. Their life must be beyond hard, and I am sure that she would probably earn far more working as a domestic worker, but she tells me that she learnt her craft from her mother, and her daughter will learn from her, and that is what they do.

I never fail to leave them with a new appreciation for my beautiful looms and the wonderful yarn I am privileged to use. The view from her loom far surpasses the view from mine, but I’m ok with that, because I know just how very lucky I am!

The beautiful bright blue mat lying next to the ‘loom’ now lives in my kitchen!