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  • Lisa Martus

FASHIONING A CULTURE OF EMBRACE

Arriving at the Kaross Studio, it feels a million miles away from the world. Not just in terms of being off-the-beaten-track on a farm near Letsitele on the road north to Giyani but also in the almost other-worldly, ethereal and precious nature of this embroidery initiative whose ethos is almost impossible to capture in words and should be experienced for oneself.


Elated by the vibrant and cultural heritage of the Vatsonga community living on and around their citrus farm, Irma Van Rooyen, a Fine Artist, wanted to capture their stories in embroidered form. She says, ‘‘The Tsonga people told me their stories and I became inspired. By their humanity, their space, their life - so utterly proud!’ And so, in 1988, a business was born with ‘just 5 ladies sitting on a blanket - a ‘Kaross’ - doing what they know and do best according to their cultural heritage.’ Irma fuelled the creative capacity within the talented women and men of the area with practical design criteria, a retail platform and the financial support to make it commercially viable. At its zenith in 2019, Kaross engaged 1300 embroiderers before the Covid pandemic put Kaross into a holding pattern until they could reconnect to the international market.


It is not just about the exceptionally fine stitching on the cushion covers, placemats, cloths and bags however, or the evocative designs depicting the african savannah, bushveld warmth and shangaan love, it is about the underlying purpose of ‘bringing people together in a way that makes the world a better place.’ For Irma, the Kaross initiative was ‘not simply about the beauty and passion that goes into creating incredible hand-embroidered works of functional art. It’s about the long-lasting benefits of job-creation within a community.’


This ‘South African success story’ has slowly gone back to business as normal with women bringing in their work from their homes in the Letsitele and Giyani areas twice a week to be finished by three women in a small corner of the cavernous building housing the Kaross workspace and showroom which used to be filled with buzzing sewing machines and happy chatter. Once finished, the items enter the domain of Olivia Phephenyane who captures each new product to the Kaross e-commerce site. This confident, engaging woman has been with Kaross for 15 years and has grown within the business to play a critical role.


Irma’s daughter, Janine Pretorius, also a Fine Artist, has taken over as Managing Director at Kaross and this dynamic, inspirational woman has gathered together a small but passionate team of women to expand the impact of their organisation through education which she believes is crucial for the future development of the area. Bella Pratt is a grounded, gregarious and multi talented young woman who keeps track of all the threads that weave the unique Kaross business design while Judy Muller is the General Manager of the Kaross Foundation, a collaboration between Kaross and Groep 91 Uitvoer, a citrus producer and exporter. She is responsible for initiating fundraising opportunities through the Foundation to support programmes like the Valued Citizen Initiative, backing the idea of ‘my career, my choice’ and ‘Bridging for Life’ with Grade 11 and 12 learners.


Their investment into the education sector in partnership with local government schools in the community is aimed at bringing about positive change with the objective to empower children through education to become independent and eventually take the burden or responsibility off their parents and grandparents. Kaross is completely invested in a process to ‘ensure a sustainable improvement in the quality of life of their community’ and even the briefest conversation with these incredible women is enough to restore your faith in humanity and the desire to invest in our collective future.


Janine shares how the international market is slowly picking up again for those who want to purchase a piece of Africa for their home space wherever they are in the world. These individually hand-crafted works of art retail through outlets in major tourist hubs such as South Africa’s international airports and their online shop stocks a fabulously diverse range from the African Dawn Animals cushion covers to the Happy Days elephant placemats. The Kaross designs speak to the seasons with their Marula’s in Autumn and Mopani Moments range as well as the distinctive and iconic colours of Bougainvillea, Turacos and an African Dawn. Americans are the biggest buyers and elephants or crocodiles are the best-sellers, but now South Africans have the opportunity to take home one of these exceptional pieces of functional art from one of the most iconic brands in our area, and to support the talented women and men behind them.


Kaross is offering the stockpiled product-range at cost, so this is a perfect time to get together a group of friends and take a leisurely drive into the countryside to browse through their new and colourful range for something that speaks to your heart or to buy some unique Christmas gifts for those you love. Ask Bella to show you the Portrait Gallery where these astonishing embroiderers have stitched their own story by creating their likeness with details that speak to their unique life journey. Pop into the beautiful, tranquil workroom where Ronnica Malatje and Noria Mahlahule are creating a flock of black and gold birds in threaded flight. And then settle in around a table under the shade of ancient fever trees, in the boma surrounded by sculptures and benches by the artists of the Ribola Art Route for a Spinach tart and a tub of delectable Dando’s ice cream.


When at last you leave this inspiring place, take this thread with you… Kaross believes in ‘building strong communities where the collective become stronger than the individual. The world should be looking to Africa for examples of community in action. If we don’t encourage development and the realisation of potential, then what are we doing? What kind of a community are we fostering and what is the end result if we forget about the ‘we’, and lose ourselves to the ever-lonely ‘I’. We are excited about the future in South Africa as an Agricultural Business, Exporter of Fruits and an Embroidery Business - because WE are working and getting the job done.’


‘Kaross Brings Creative Hands Together. It is a platform for endless possibility. It is a Voice, a Home, a Covering, a Job and an Artform. Kaross is fashioning a New culture….. It is a culture of honest and hard work, perfecting our craft and getting the job done. It is a culture of Grace and Truth, of making our country work and it is a culture of embrace; where we celebrate the fact that we are all equal, but not the same.’

Connect with Kaross on 076 499 6778 / www.kaross.co.za


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