Today’s post is very, very special. My friend, Jen, a talented spinner/knitter/weaver herself, writes about her experiences travelling to Lesotho and the significance of the yarn industry there.
As a dedicated knitter I try to do my bit for yarn tourism whenever I go anywhere. I was recently visiting my friend, Mahesh, in Lesotho and Felicia has graciously granted me guest blogging rights to tell you about my yarn experiences there.
Some of you may not know where Lesotho is. I didn’t, until Mahesh moved there and I looked it up on a map. It is a small, mountainous country completely surrounded by South Africa. The mountains provide plenty of grazing land and as a result the Basotho people raise a lot of livestock — including sheep and goats. I strongly suspect (based purely on speculative observation, not statistics) that there may be more sheep, cattle, horses and goats in Lesotho than people — you can’t go anywhere without seeing some sort of grazing animal, usually accompanied by a herdboy dressed in Basotho blanket and some sort of hat. Some of you will be familiar with lovely South African mohair (for instance, Be Sweet, which you can find here in Vancouver at Urban Yarns) — well, Lesotho produces mohair as well. So I was pretty excited to see what Basotho yarn tourism had to offer.
First, I visited Elelloang Basali Weavers. I would have missed the building entirely were it not for the clotheslines festooned with newly dyed yarn, drying in the sun in the yard next to the road. The inside of the building is inspirationally lined, floor to ceiling, in columns of pop and beer cans (how many Fantas does it take to weave a rug?). Inside, 3 or 4 women were busily weaving blankets and rugs on basic, 2×4 framed tapestry looms. I watched them painstakingly weaving small sections of complex patterns using their fingers — this is nothing like using a big floor loom or even a table loom. Awed into submission, I bought a rug for probably more than I should have paid, thinking, if these women can spend that long on weaving one inch of rug, I can certainly pay for it.
Remembering my stash, I then plucked up courage to ask about yarn. It turned out that not only do the Elelloang Basali Weavers weave, they also prepare, spin and dye their own yarn. The spinning takes place on a simple, homemade wheel made out of a bicycle wheel (making me think of Charkas for Africa, affixed again to a basic wooden frame. Here is a photo of one of the weavers pretending to spin for my benefit (for the camera, of course, as the wheel wasn’t set up, as you’ll see if you look closely!). Awed again at the thought of how long it must take to spin a rug’s worth of yarn on a bicycle wheel, I then bought a kilo of worsted-weight washed mohair yarn.
Still reeling from the pop cans and the yarn, we got back in the car and drove to Leribe, a bustling town in north-western Lesotho, stopping along the way to take photos of the sublime scenery. I wanted to visit Leribe because of the Leribe Craft Centre, which was set up to provide support for disabled women. It turns out that Leribe offers entirely different products than Elelloang Basali… beautiful, finely woven scarves and shawls, gorgeously patterned tablewares, and even intricate knitted and crocheted shawls that made my own attempts rather humbling. And all done in the same soft, fine mohair that took my breath away. I bought shawls and scarves there for everyone I knew and then peered over the shopgirl’s shoulder and saw this:
Babbling incoherently, I somehow made it known that I wanted to go inside and look. I successfully fought off the temptation to throw myself on the pile of mohair (just how comfortable is a 6-foot-high pile of mohair?) and restricted myself to fondling it. It transpired that the shopgirl herself had spun most of it and to my surprise she was kind enough to make a gift of some to me. Here I am, weighing my mohair, surrounded by yarn. Do I look giddy?
That was it for yarn tourism in Lesotho, but here is a gratuitous sheep photo. This is Bart (who knows how to pose for the camera), the sheep-about-the-house at Malealea Lodge, a lovely place high up in the mountains that you should all visit once in your life just to see the view.
The special thing about my Lesotho yarn experience is that it brought home to me just how spinning and weaving is still very much women’s livelihood in many parts of the world. In a place like Lesotho, where there is a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS and many men work as migrant labourers in South Africa, the ability of women to support themselves becomes especially important. So think about where your yarn comes from the next time you supplement your stash, and do your bit by buying products from organizations like Be Sweet and Leribe Craft Centre, to support women who, like you, love to spin and weave — but for whom every metre spun, every inch woven, goes to support their families.