Felting and Feeling

Social Fabric

The story of felt blankets and identity in South Africa 

Felting is one of man’s oldest technologies: matting plant fibres and or animal hairs made a fabric which wrapped our bodies from the elements. Felt blankets are the descendants of this early invention. In South Africa felt blankets played and continues to play a role in clothing and fashion, and thus in identity. This exhibition looks at 5 historic and contemporary examples of South African blankets in art and design. 
to attire the natives -  whom the missionaries felt wore too little - in a more suitably Christian way.  The blanket would have been “worn” wrapped around the shoulders and or the hips. Whilst the blanket/clothing was a tool to convert and urbanise the population, many of the populace came to incorporate it into daily lives (footnote 1).  For instance, they became personalised, via embellishments for example, as in the blanket shown. It is called "uMbalo" and is a men's blanket used by the Southern Nguni clan. (footnote 2)

made in England, but became South African

The label shows the blanket was made in England. It was shipped to South Africa specifically to clothe the natives.

The buttons, however, were added by its South African owner. As were the blue beads.

The blue beads edge the entire blanket.

Other embellishments include animal skins and the colour.

Originally white, its colour has been changed by ochre and blood, sacred materials, that have become felted into the blanket.

The Ndebele marriage blanket

Another example is this marriage blanket from the Ndebele tribe c1950 (footnote 3). Predominantly white beads cover significant parts of this blanket such as to significantly change its pattern.

It’s not possible to credit individual makers save their tribal origins, as such information was not recorded, thus unknown at the time they were collected.

Whilst South African men of the Xhosa tribe may still wear blankets as part of their initiation ceremony, a more modern way to wear blankets is offered by the fashion designer Thabo Makheta, for instance, who uses them to make tailored jackets.

The Basotho Blanket

The fabric is a Basotho blanket, which also arrived with the missionaries to what is now Lesotho.

The key defining feature of a Basotho blanket is a 1-cm wide stripe. The story goes that a blanket arrived in Southern Africa with its manufacturer’s 'cut-here pinstripe' still on it. Even though that stripe was a flaw, the populace liked and kept it.

Contemporary Basotho Blankets

Contemporary Basotho blankets have added further distinctive patterning. As a member of the moSotho, these blankets are part of Makheta’s heritage.

Thabo Makheta's inspiration

When asked how she was inspired to use them as materials for jackets (and skirts), Makheta says: I came across the idea of using them when I attended the Durban July in 2011. The theme that year was "Royalty" and I wanted to design a garment that would be modern but instead of the European interpretation of Royalty I went African and more specifically my Basotho culture...

...I also noticed that many people tend to disassociate culture and modernity and when they travel or move to cities they tend to want to leave their culture behind. Traditional wear becomes reserved for traditional occasions. My design was meant to show people that culture and luxury can coexist.”

Using blankets as a tool of political agency is still present today.  In another exhibition we highlight the works of five contemporary artists who use textiles to interrogate society and identity, in this exhibition we highlight a work by the art collective the Keiskamma Art Projects  (or “KAP” for short).In 2010, KAP made an assemblage using fabrics and other materials to create “Keiskamma Guernica”.  It was modeled after Picasso’s “Guernica” and is the same dimension (3.5 metres high and 7.8 metres wide).  Picasso’s “Guernica”, made in 1937, was a cry of horror over the bombing of the small Basque town Guernica by the Nazis with the consent of the fascist General Franco during the Spanish Civil War.  THE KAP’s “GUERNICA” WAS ALSO A CRY OF HORROR, OVER THE DECIMATION CAUSED BY HIV/AIDS. KAP members live in a small village called Hamburg and in  surrounding villages.  In 2007, the Hamburg health clinic was closed due to what turned out to be misguided public health policy.  Patients were directed to a clinic in a larger village and to a hospital 106 kms away.  This is a formidable challenge to a community who own few cars and have very little income for public transport.  In effect, closing the local clinic was tantamount to closing health access for some.Like the folk bombed in their Spanish town, the Hamburg villagers felt lack of agency, their lives impacted by political decisions outside of their experience let alone ability to change.  As KAP put it in their press release, making the “Keiskamma Guernica” is a “LAMENT FOR THE DEAD, for the injustices of our health system and the staggering grief experienced in Eastern Cape [province] villages today” (footnote 4).

“Keiskamma Guernica”

The “Keiskamma Guernica” is made from used fabrics, including used blankets from the now-closed clinic. The blankets, (machine) felted, gray with white stripes, are so ubiquitous in South Africa to be almost overlooked. But in this artwork, their use invokes the individuals who have been lost.

Indeed, when standing in front of the work, the sense of the haptic plays a trick on the mind. We almost feel the presence of those lost rather than an artwork in front of us.

By 2010, despite the public health policy, the lives of the people in Hamburg were improving. Alongside the grief and anger, there are also symbols of optimism such as the birds on the top of the artwork.

In the way that felt is made by enmeshing different materials, here the work is made by enmeshing the individual cries and hopes of the KAP members as expressed in fabric and thread.

the blankets and the community

Watch a clip on how the blankets came to be used in making the work.

South Africa is still a young democracy, it was only 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected president.  The past is omnipresent in the country’s struggle to find its identity.  Some issues remain contested and charged. Some times the past and present are able to be woven into something beautiful.
Mungo is a blanket company based in Plettenburg Bay (along the so-called Garden Route).  The previous clip is from one of their looms which is over 100 years old and still used to make blankets.  The loom was imported from England when blankets came to be made in, not just imported into, South Africa. Alongside such looms, Mungo also uses state-of-the-art automated weaving machines.  

The designers still first hand draw the pattern before using computer-aided software to finish the design.

The Tawulo Pattern

The patterns, too, reference African history and the contemporary. For instance, this Tawulo pattern draws from the aforementioned Basotho blanket (notice the stripe) and the practice of historic West African weavers.

When textiles from elsewhere in the world first arrived into West Africa, the local weavers would unravel them to extract the exotically-coloured foreign yarns. These would be re-woven with local yarns of local colours to create a cultural hybrid of pattern and texture called kente clothe.

Mungo references kente clothes through the random rolling of the weft yarn in the weaving process. This also makes each blanket, even of the same design, a unique item.

The title of this exhibition because the art and designs exhibited give us a sense of South African identity and the prospect of what may be shared with the rest of the world. In the accompanying exhibition "it's not a mistake - it's something else" looks at the material felt and what came out of the collaborative Social Fabric on felt with artist Paul Edmunds, felt furnishings company Krafthaus, and the designers who participated in the workshop.
Credits: Story

Credits, Footnotes and Links:
felting images in title and first panel
* photo credit: Stephanie Bentum

uMbalo blanket and Ndebele blanket
* photo credit: Yasmin Hankel
* the blankets are in the collection of the Iziko South African National Gallery, shown with their permission
* footnote (1) African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations and Ideas you can Wear, Victoria Rovine
* footnotes (2) and (3) Carol Kaufmann, retired Iziko South African National Gallery African art curator
* visit Iziko South African National Gallery

Thabo Makheta designs
* first image photo credit: Thabo Makheta
* close up images photo credit: Yasmin Hankel
* last image photo credit: Rose Estiaan Labuschagne
* visit Thabo Makheta

Keiskamma Art Projects
* all photo credits: Robert Hofmeyr
* footnote (4) Brenda Schmahmann, 2016, “The Keiskamma Art Project: restoring hope and livelihoods”
* film credit: Dr. Nicola Ashmore; see the full films on the making of Keiskamma Guernica
* visit Keiskamma Art Projects' website

* all photo credits: Mungo
* clip of loom Social Fabric, courtesy Mungo
* visit Mungo

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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