kaross-maker-with-baby-on-backWhat started in 1989 as a small project by Irma van Rooyen, an artist and farmer’s wife, to provide an income for a few of the farm workers’ wives, has united communities and changed the lives of 1,000 Tsonga and Shangaan women far northern Limpopo Province in South Africa – an astonishing number of hand embroiderers!

In the early years, Irma prepared the designs on fabric, providing embroidery yarns, and encouraged the women to have a free hand in interpreting her designs. Dormant artistic skills and a wealth of common local knowledge emerged. These vibrantly colorful works of art are a distillation of this region and are rooted in the ancient tribal skills of these people. Subsequently, a group of core artists emerged who create all the drawings for the works and bring their own images and issues to the works that are made.

On a warm, blue-skied day, we drove out to the remote citrus farm in Limpopo Province where Kaross is based. I was immediately drawn to this dedicated, passionate woman who runs this fine, sustainable craft operation. Irma’s goal is to ensure a good livelihood for the embroiderers and they are paid fairly for their work. The stitchers work out of their homes in this rural area that has no jobs. This enables women to remain in their tribal areas and raise their families without drifting into the dangerous cities in the hopes of finding work. Many of the women have taught their children to do embroidery and so it is possible to see women and children working on textiles in the area.

The Kaross Project won the 2000 Merit Award of the First National Band Vita Craft Now Awards and a Gold Award winner in 2002.