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THE PATCHWORK PLANET: Quilting in South Africa

RPLANET.GIF (9363 bytes)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 year."

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 exhibition.

"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 country.

"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 quilt stories.

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 magazines.

"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 dresses."

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."


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