IN THE SMALL LAND-LOCKED AFRICAN COUNTRY OF SWAZILAND, PERCHED AT THE END OF A BUMPY GRAVEL TRACK, OVERLOOKING THE USUTU RIVER IS THE WEAVING STUDIO OF KERRY JAMES. TSANDZA WEAVING, STARTED AS A SMALL COTTAGE COMPANY BUT IS NOW A THRIVING BUSINESS WORKING WITH AROUND 60 RURAL WOMEN.
In a country where 70% of the population still lives in rural areas where work opportunities are rare, the talented artisans of TSANDZA provide for their families by creating luxurious hand woven, crocheted and knitted blankets and throws, and fashion accessories. The eco-friendly fibers of mohair, merino wool, cotton, and bamboo used in their products are sourced regionally from South Africa. Special patterns created and developed by Kerry and her team make the woven textiles they produce truly unique.
Driven by love, and motivated by a desire to make a difference, Kerry, Australian born, arrived in Swaziland from a 16-year stint in the UK in 2009. She took over the business (formerly known as Rosecraft) in 2013 with those ideals in mind, and next to a few hiccups along the way, has seen the business go from strength to strength. TSANDZA is not only about beautiful design and exceptional quality – it’s about teaching skills and empowering the women of Swaziland from the inside out. TSANDZA provides training and work, but their studio also feels like a haven of calm for the women who work there. With a company culture centered around “having your eyes and your heart open”, it’s a business inspired not only by a love of design and quality but of support and community. Some women have been with the business (formerly known as Rosecraft) for over 30 years –– like the lovely Magdalena. She is crucial to TSANDZA and helps show new recruits the ropes.
Kerry’s support of the local economy extends beyond just the economic independence it provides to the weavers. She is passionate about teaching, so she introduced free artisanal training for rural women wanting to join the business, and has just completed the building of a new larger weaving workshop and vocational training center that will provide greater space to increase the number of trainee Artisans the business takes on. It takes 6 months to train an artisan for a specific skill. As well as providing subsidized transport, TSANDZA also pays it’s trainees a salary during this time – a costly endeavor, given the fact that only roughly 50% of students stay with the company after they have finished, preferring instead to remain at home.
“TSANDZA is all about giving back to its community.”
With water scarcity, a critical issue in Swaziland, their collaboration on a water project has had a significant impact on more than 250 homesteads. The issues that TSANDZA aims to assist with is the one of lack of opportunity to stay living in a rural area and earn an income (women would have to move away from their families), and the lack of education which further reduces work opportunities, particularly in the rural areas, due to there being no free education until 2010. Way after all of their Artisans were of schooling age. Kerry and her team also run various sponsorship programs, and in 2008 started a sponsorship project to provide rural schools with teachers. The majority of rural Swaziland has never had access to free education. Today, although primary schooling is free, books, uniforms, and transport to school still needs to be paid for. A tall order for most rural families. The majority of high school is still not subsidized. Education has always been – for many people – the highest cost of living. Within the rural areas, A lot of people speak very limited English, and literacy skills are generally very low, making employment difficult. TSANDZA is able to provide local women with the opportunity to learn a skill and earn an income, providing for their families – which would otherwise not be possible.
To Kerry the environmental impact of her business is just as important as creating a safe working environment. TSANDZA’s use of handlooms and eco-friendly raw materials sourced regionally from South Africa. minimises their footprint in our environment, The raw fiber is first hand dyed which is basically boiling water, mixing up biodegradable dye powders, adding the threads to the water and stirring for up to 45 minutes. After that, the thread gets rinsed and hung out to dry. The home-based women spin the thread into balls. Afterward they are woven according to plan by hand on traditional wooden looms- . ROSECRAFT continues to invest in warp threads – every single one is tied by hand – there are 1600 threads and it takes one lead artisan and up to four helpers to set up a weaving loom this size. There are 1600 warp threads per loom set up- every single one is tied by hand and it takes one lead artisan and up to four helpers to set up a weaving loom this size. They get 30 meters out of this amount of threads.
TSANDZA is a member of Swaziland’s Fair Trade Association ( SWIFT) and has uniquely blended its approach of contemporary design and traditional production methods with sustainable skills development and income opportunities for rural families. It not only grows its own cloth but also enables its artisan weavers to grow their own economic future.
What plans does TSANDZA have for the future? The last three years have seen a huge investment in, streamlining the workflow, setting up training programs and building the new workshop and training center. 2017 is the year for growing the label in the international community.