Sewing up a storm
Judy Bryant travels to Onrus and discovers just how big quilting is in the Overberg.
Overberg, Western Cape
South African Country Life
“While I was still single, I had the choice of buying myself a new car, or a new sewing machine. I chose the sewing machine,” says Leonie Marais. “And now, if I wasn’t married, I would probably quilt 24 hours a day.”
Leonie is the chairperson of the Overberg Quilters Guild, and I’d travelled to the charming riverside town of Stanford to meet her after viewing an exhibition of exquisitely crafted quilts of every colour, texture and pattern. I just had to find out who created these beautiful works of fabric art on display in the nearby Kleinmond library.
I discovered that the Guild has no less than 80 members, travelling from towns like Hermanus, Bredasdorp, Kleinmond, Pringle Bay and Stellenbosch to meet in Onrus every third Monday of the month. Many are so besotted about quilting that they also sew together in smaller groups – like the Wacky Whalers in Gansbaai, the Lieflappers and Bees’ Knees in Kleinmond and the Loslap Dollas in Onrus.
“It’s a craft that’s in the limelight again ‒ not that it was ever out of fashion ‒ with many active quilters here,” explained Leonie. “Many retirees live in the Overberg. They have time to devote to their hobbies and many can afford top-notch fabrics. It’s like a bug bites and you get quite addicted.”
Leonie “knew zero about quilting” until, as a Bernina employee, she was asked to create a quilt for the Somerset West outlet. Working on a ‘trip around the world’ design – a central block with different colours swirling around it – ignited her passion.
“Now it’s the use of colour that keeps me intrigued,” she said, showing me her state-of-the-art machine and piles of quilts. In the hallway I examined an intricately-worked wall hanging, each panel depicting a wild bird. Later, we strolled to a beauty spot whose shady trees, gnarled bark and rich undergrowth had inspired her to create a small quilt in shades of mossy green and brown.
Next I travelled to Hermanus to meet quilting doyenne Bettie van Zyl ‒ and knew I’d found her home when I spotted a ceramic-tiled ‘Lapland’ (Fabricland) sign.
After ten minutes with this multi-talented woman I felt like one of the laziest people in the world. Every bed bore a beautiful quilt, quilted panels decorated the walls, and a vast workspace was filled with work in progress. The loft stored layers of quilts, each a marvel of colour graduations, stitching styles and novel techniques.
“I’ve been busy with needlework since I was nine years old and my mom subscribed to Burda (sewing pattern magazine)” said Bettie. “I dabbled in embroidery, made duvets, did weaving and pottery, and when I’d raised my children became sourcing editor of Talking Threads magazine.”
When Bettie and her husband moved from Johannesburg to Hermanus in 2006, “quilting made me feel welcome, because you’ve got quilt sisters around the world.”
Many quilters support the Hermanus Factory Shop, also known as Harrod’s of Hermanus, so I popped in and took the old wooden stairs to the fabric section.
“Lots of holidaymakers buy here,” said manager Susan Geldenhuys. “People go to Cape Town and look – then they come back and buy.”
By now I was intrigued to meet more quilters at the next Guild get-together in the De Wet Hall in Onrus. It had been transformed with a colour injection of quilts displayed on the walls and stage.
Dozens of women, many dressed in hand-sewn, crocheted and quilted clothing, fluttered around like butterflies. Leonie rang a bell and brought us to order. During ‘show and tell’ the quilters held up their latest creations, discussing inspiration and techniques. I saw mountains and sea, flowers and fish, birds and insects.
Olga Kuschke and other Wacky Whalers unfurled a magnificent quilt inspired by fynbos: “Every block has been individually designed, then hand-quilted, and sewn together. Then the entire piece was hand-quilted with botanical names, and we added indigenous butterflies.”
Carool Johnson, formerly a physiotherapist in Johannesburg, took up quilting on the recommendation of a patient. She enjoyed it so much that she opened a quilt shop in Swellendam. “Quilters everywhere get their inspiration from what’s around them and in the Overberg you’re surrounded by beautiful things.”
Beatrix Swanepoel from Sandbaai began quilting last year. “Every time I come here I’m amazed at the colour, composition and detail. You can paint pictures.” Her landscape quilt was inspired by the drought ‒ she depicted Theewaterskloof Dam with tree stumps against dwindling blue water.
Cavel Steyn from Onrus has quilted for decades since spotting a magazine photograph of a ‘log cabin’ quilt. She discussed her latest creation – a colour wash of golden hues in the centre, evolving into pinks and blues ‒ utilising a Japanese folded fabric technique.
Alda Rowan from Gansbaai, whose sparkly blue nails matched her blue glasses and colourful hair, displayed several huge quilts. “I learnt quilting when I lived in the Kalahari for many years and travelled with missionaries to Botswana, Zambia and Mozambique,” she told me during the tea break, as I nibbled delicious home-baked cake. “My work was to teach women how to sew and quilt, and I learnt too.”
Helen Falck from Onrus is in charge of the Guild’s extensive library. “We’ve got some beautiful books and magazines,” she said, pointing to illustrations that should encourage the most jaded quilter to reach for fabric.
Giving back is important in the Guild. Many members, like Bettie, Cavel and Louise Combrink (a former Stellenbosch University lecturer) are highly respected quilting teachers. Experienced hands are encouraged to mentor youngsters ‒ passing on techniques and even buying fabric ‒ and many create quilts together to raffle for charities.
Charlotte Keene, raised in Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, moved to Betty’s Bay with her husband, a hunter, three years ago. She’s produced quilts for six children in the local orphanage “and as more children come in I’ll make some more.” She also plans to make quilts for elderly people in the nursing home.
Chairperson of the Lieflappers group in Kleinmond, Mariette Hugo, showed me an exquisite botanical quilt: “We make a raffle quilt once a year and most of the proceeds go to a local charity, usually helping children.”
Mariette works several days a week at Lu-Dal Interior in Kleinmond. I’d heard this shop was excellent, but was bowled over when I viewed hundreds of fabrics, meticulously arranged on wood-panelled shelves, softly lit by chandeliers. I fell in love at once with a cerise fabric created by American-born designer Kaffe Fassett.
“Fabric is my passion,” said owner Louise Bruwer. “I have the largest selection of quilting fabric in the Western Cape, mainly from America and England. Shoppers are mostly holidaymakers, and from Cape Town.”
A Kleinmond resident told me that when he collects his mother at Cape Town Airport, he has to drive directly to Lu-Dal before taking his mother home. No wonder that Louise’s business has expanded to include three adjoining shops.
Recalling a fridge magnet in Leonie’s home – ‘quilting has taken over my life’ ‒ I wasn’t surprised to hear that some Overbergers even travel to the East for inspiration. Margie Adams, chairperson of the Seaside Quilters, told me about the next trip to Bali she’s organising: “Fabric shopping for batiks and silks, batik wax resist and indigo dyeing workshops, craft markets and of course, sunset-sews.”
It just shows how far you can go with some patchwork fabric, thread and a little patience.
Overberg Quilt Guild: www.goodhopequiltersguild.org.za, Leonie Marais email@example.com