After a 20 year stint in London, Peta Becker returned to her hometown of Cape Town to found a business that would not only help people out of poverty, but also teach valuable skills, in an uplifting and nurturing environment.
Eighteen years later this wonderful initiative is still going strong as they forge ahead with innovative and unique crochet designs. Despite the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic, this group of incredible women endure and continue to delight people with their unmistakable interpretation of African contemporary design.
There is so much to share about this amazing project, and we caught up with Peta, who was kind enough to answer some questions we had.
I’m interested in your early collaborations with your staff. How did you communicate your ideas, and were there any unexpected interpretations?
When I began my project I had already worked for a year as a volunteer, providing knitting designs to a project in Manenberg – one of the toughest townships in the Cape. This helped me understand a few of the challenges that lay ahead.
We began by creating with a simple disc motif, for scarves. We soon progressed to three dimensional objects – but have been extremely successful with our scarves, because they are intricately patterned, and interestingly coloured, even though the basic motif is very easy to make. We always worked from drawings that I would photocopy in black and white and hand- colour for the artisan, or from my sketches and diagrams.
I soon identified those makers who had a real talent for working with colour, and have always given these artisans a fairly loose colour brief, providing a palette of colours and noting which should only be used in small amounts. Every artisan has a different talent, and we (my quality controller and myself) scrutinize each piece of work very carefully, when it is brought to us. This helps us identify characteristics in the style of the maker that might suggest them as suitable for a particular area of work. e.g. making flowers or leaves.
In those (pre-Covid 19 ) days, we met weekly, and everyone sat around a large table, so we could examine the work, and talk to everyone present about what was good or bad about the pieces that had arrived. It’s helpful to explain to the entire group, rather than each person, singly. This also meant that everyone could see what items we were making, and what problems were coming up in production. Artisans can ask to learn to make different items – and we also choose items suited to people’s skill levels. It’s important that even beginners can start earning regularly and quickly. Sometimes misunderstood instructions have resulted in very beautiful or funny “mistakes” which proved to be more exciting than what was asked for. I love it when this happens!
I have never wanted to become “A crochet village” – though these exist in China and India.
Can you recount your most challenging project to date?
That’s a difficult question to answer. Generally, very large orders of a single item will always show a certain variation in technique, when made by a large group of artisans. It helps when the client appreciates this mark of the human hand.
I would say that after the last production of our scarves for orders at New York Fashion Week a few years ago, I felt that the stress of fashion deadlines - and the thirst the buyers’ had for hand made goods was incompatible. To deal with the way these orders were going the project would have had to become a dedicated scarf entity, operating like a factory, with huge production and impossible deadlines. I have never wanted to become “A crochet village” – though these exist in China and India.
Basically, I have very little interest in endless repetition and don’t feel these huge orders enable our artisans to express their skill and enjoyment of the work. On the creative side, all briefs are challenging – even my own – but in a good way!
What is your approach to training and skills transfer, which enables you to maintain such incredibly high standards?
The most mysterious aspect of the project is that we don’t work with written patterns.
I will make a drawing of the item, and I may often make a sewn maquette, using pieces of crochet that are lying around the studio. This is interpreted into crochet by my sample maker, usaually in the studio, where she works with me.
The success of a design is very linked to how easy it is to make. When I can see artisans are struggling with a piece, I sometimes have to do a redesign. From the outset, the teachers in the project have been paid to give lessons to other artisans, so that they can learn new items as we offer them to our customers. But the incredible thing is that everyone stores this pattern in their heads, once they have been taught it. I find that truly amazing!
Each artisan is given a sample to copy, every time she receives yarn. The aim is to replicate this as accurately as possible. When the artisan has completed her first example, she must show it to her teacher, to see whether she is making any errors. After this first attempt has been approved, the artisan is given her first 6 or 8 or 10 – depending on difficulty – to make.
There are about 5 quality control stages in our process, as after the work has been sewn or embroidered (all done by hand) it is rechecked by a quality controller or myself.
Quality control is the most important aspect of running a successful project, particularly one like ours, where a very high level of work is expected. Our artisans are justly proud of every piece they make.