• Murrae Stephens

Approaching a milestone

This year we will be celebrating 70 years as a weaving studio and it provides a good excuse to look back at some of our history. This is the house that Bob built, he came to Swaziland after the Second World War and began working on a forestry project that would ultimately result in the largest manmade forest in the world (at the time). This was in Northern Swaziland, in the Piggs Peak area.

Coral had an interest in weaving and brought her loom with ambition and intentions to weave some curtaining for the long-passaged farm house, Boshimela, that they built.

She chose to work with mohair, handspun, light and chalky and neutral in colour, and weave them into curtaining fabric, which she did.

They hung, unlined, boxed in by wooden pelmets, next to white washed walls and looked simple, classic and beautiful. Filtering light and moving with the gentle breeze that flowed down the passage.

Coral immediately had a lot of interest in her fabric and visitors began to place orders for mohair curtaining. With her flair for colour and adventurous use of texture she soon developed a unique style of textile design.

Orders followed and a weaving studio was born. Staff were recruited from a large pool of women, many the families of forest workers who were busy working on the newly established plantation. Coral sourced European looms and had spinning wheels made by the skilled carpenters and artisans who were employed by the forestry company.

Sylvia Mantanga had come with Coral from Johannesburg to Swaziland, she had been educated by Swedish missionaries at a rural school near Butterworth in the Transkei. She was a Xhosa woman and travelled with her Swedish weaving patterns which she shared with Coral. Sylvia became an integral and determined part of the new business and worked tirelessly throughout her long life with mohair.

Spinning centres were established to provide a steady stream of handspun mohair. Raw fleece was delivered and collected once spun into a fine yarn.

Coral's reputation for bespoke and avant garde fabrics soon gained traction and she caught the eye of a famous American textile designer, Jack Lenor Larsen. He developed a range with Coral and her fabrics were launched in the U.S.A. Prestigous orders for corporate clients, theatres and private homes followed.

Coral's eye for colour and blending this with different textures was unique and intricate. Her fabrics contained an extensive range of colour, subtle changes and flows of finely woven pattern which came together in a piece of fabric like a work of art. Coral blazed a trail through design, unafraid of colour, her look was not easy to categorise, it became simply a Coral Stephens look.

People contact me regularly about curtains or carpets they have had, grown up with, inherited from their parents or even grandparents and speak with such affection about these fabrics. They came, for many, to represent a special feeling, they could make a room look beautiful and feel comfortable, maybe sophisticated, but these fabrics connected with people and have become part of their memories.

Coral continued working right into her dotage, along the way she raised a family, ran a busy household and continued to be inspired by the infinite possibilities of handweaving. She always had a very specific look and although her work was widely copied, it was impossible to replicate. Sylvia, also an enigma mentored many weavers and became an expert dyer. She was also a healer and always travelled with an air of mystery and a warm smile. She was instrumental in helping me get started when I took over the studio in 2002.

Coral died in 2002 at the age of 92. Sylvia died in 2010 at the age of 81, while finishing her day's work.

The Boshimela front door, always open and welcoming visitors from far and wide. Below is the old vegetable garden fence which dried many a dyed skein.

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