THE PATCHWORK PLANET: Quilting in South Africa
Of the former English colonies, South Africa is a relative late-comer to
quilting. According to Jenny Whitehead of Newton Park, immediate past President of the
South African Quilters' Guild, the craft only came to this once-troubled nation in the
late 1970s. But they've been making up for lost time.
"Most of our early information came from American books and magazines," she
says. "The few that we managed to lay our hands on at that time became very worn.
Thus when we started we were very influenced by the American trends. By the early '80s
there were quite a number of us who had grown tired of making cushions, and we moved on to
sewing quilts. We have never looked back."
Based on her experience with SAQG, Jenny estimates there are approximately 5,000 quilters
in South Africa today -- certainly a small community compared to the estimated 14 million
quilters in the U.S. "Being a small community has the great advantage that we all
know each other well," she says, "sharing information and skills very willingly.
As our history of quilting grows we are creating our own styles, colours and designs.
"Interest in the 'Art Quilt,' for want of a better definition, is growing, and we
have some very talented quilters who are slowly getting their work recognized as an art
form. We have found it quite hard to educate the public and galleries, that we are making
more than 'bed-covers,' that the quilts being sewn are all in their own way a form of art.
Recently we have had more success in having exhibitions hung in galleries. For instance
the recent 'Peace Quilt Project' has been widely acclaimed, has been displayed in art
galleries and the quilts really looked so good. This project was presented at our last
National Quilt Show in Durban 1996. Participants were asked to contribute to the 'Wall of
Peace' by sewing a quilt 'brick,' in blues and whites. The response was 800 bricks from 29
different countries, and these were sewn into 26 panels. These will be travelling
extensively in our country and overseas, and will be on display at Houston this
The quilters in South Africa are more systematically organized than in most countries.
"The quilting community is roughly divided up into 9 geographical regions,"
Jenny says. "Each of these regions has an umbrella guild, which links all the smaller
groups in the area, and keeps them informed of shows, workshops etc. A representative from
each region sits on the national body, The South African Quilters' Guild, which has been
in existence for 7 years. The President is elected from its committee members.
"We have an additional 3 co-opted members who each have special talents to offer the
Guild, such as judging or quilt study. The SAQG meets annually and it has been very
exciting to see how it has helped to guide the quilters in this country with respect to
standards, and directives for the National Quilt Shows.
"We used to host a National quilt exhibition annually, but it put quite a strain on
our quilters to make exhibition quilts each year. Now it is held every two years, in Cape
Town, Durban, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth. Each show is totally autonomous, but has to
adhere to certain guidelines from the SAQG. Each hosting guild has the right to select
venues, teachers, theme and the dates. It is normally held in the first week of July. The
delegates number about 600 (very small compared to your shows over there. I attended
Paducah in '96 and nearly freaked out with all those quilters!!!) We usually run from the
Monday morning right through to the Saturday following. We offer courses throughout the
week. For the next show here in Port Elizabeth in 1998 we have 30 SA teachers and 5 from
overseas who have already agreed to come and teach during the week.
"We will be holding our first juried show in 1998. This has been decided by the SAQG
as we feel that the quilts on the National exhibition should be of a high standard. There
will be other smaller quilt shows at regional levels, so that every quilter will have the
opportunity to show/share their work. We will be jurying two days before the judging
commences (I for my sins will be one of these first jurors, together with one of our
learned judges and our present President of the SAQG Paul Schutte. I was selected as I am
the immediate Past President.) We hope to have about 250 quilts on display for the
"The national show is the highlight of many quilters and they travel many miles, by
air and car, to attend. For some it is the only time that they make contact with fellow
sewers. We have vendors from all over the country coming. In 1998 we are expecting about
13 to attend, all quilt-related, and this is a good representation of the vendors in the
"The umbrella guilds in the larger areas meet quarterly, with meetings similar to
those in the states, with Show and Tell, hands-on sharing, slide shows, etc. Within the
umbrella guilds we have the smaller home groups who usually meet weekly, and are
supportive groups." There are no quilting magazines published in South Africa, though
the guilds publish their own newsletters and the country's family magazines also carry
Asked if there is a distinctive South African style of quilting, Jenny replies: "I
feel, having traveled both in the USA and UK, that quilting in SA is very similar to that
in other countries. The traditional type of work is the most popular, but this in
inevitable when we get most of our ideas from overseas publications, both books and
"However there is a definite style being developed which is very South African. This
is the use of bright, hot colours, obviously as a result of our hot climate, and of course
the local flora and fauna offer many ideas, leading to folk/simple styles and to the more
exotic/artistic wall-hangings. We are also taking ideas from many of our African tribes,
who use simple shapes and beadwork to decorate their homes and themselves.
"It is still early days but I am sure that we will see more and more of our quilters
using our own SA colours and designs. Nevertheless there will always be those who prefer
the traditional/historical patterns, though perhaps we tend to use brighter contrasting
colours. When visiting both the AQS and the Show in Lancaster, we were delighted to see
that our work is of a comparable high standard. Not perhaps as high as your Best of Show,
but not far off!!"
As for quilting materials, South Africa must import most of them, but has some distinctive
local products as well. Jenny says: "We have several quilt shops around the country,
based very much on the quilt shops we saw in the U.S. But all the supplies are imported
from the U.S. and are thus very expensive. Obviously it is impossible for the vendors to
import the vast selection of fabric available in the States. Sadly this will inhibit quite
a few quilters with their purchases as it now costs a fortune to make a quilt. But while
we were in the U.S. in April, 1996, we were pleasantly surprised to find we have nearly
the same selection of books /notions/rulers. We have only a very small selection of
packaged designs, and of course we just loved the wonderful selection of embellishments.
These are few and far between here.
"We do have a few locally produced fabrics, and we tend to use these for our quilt
backings. They are not as detailed in their printing and tend to be rather 'stretchy.'
However I must mention our cotton blue and white fabrics which are only made here. It is
commonly called the 'German print.' An Indigo dyed cotton fabric was brought to South
Africa by German settler women in the mid-19th century and traders began importing this
fabric from Europe. Xhosa women gradually also started using this fabric for clothing. A
German factory developed a cheaper synthetic indigo dye in the 1890s and the fabric was
manufactured in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. When this manufacturer emigrated to England in
the 1930's the fabric was then made in England under the 'Three Cats' trade name. In 1982
Da Gama Textiles first started production of German Print in SA, in the Eastern Cape,
under the 'Three Leopards' logo, which is the African version of the 'Three Cats.' The
recipe for the dye is a closely guarded secret and it is a synthetic, unlike the original
indigo dyes. There are many different designs printed on these fabrics, which are usually
blue but may also be printed in maroon and brown. The Xhosa ladies still wear these
Computer use by the general South African public is still in its early stages, so there
are few quilters online. Jenny is the exception: "It seems strange to me, when our
distances are so vast, that we don't use this form of communication more. There are about
15 of us in contact with each other in Southern Africa, but this is a very new venture
only a few weeks old, so hopefully it will grow and become exciting. Not many quilters use
the computer for their work, I personally have because I find with my teaching that it is
a wonderful tool to have at my finger tips. Also the cost of programs are expensive. As
far as the Internet is concerned, I was only given this tool in March this year, and each
time I log on to a digest or whatever, I ask for contact with SA's, and there only appears
to be a handful of us using this most exciting medium. I am a bore with my peers when I
meet and keep telling what I have discovered!!! But I am sure that this will also change
and soon more and more quilters will be reaching out to friends across the world."