In a global fashion system in which one can find crochet pieces sold mass-produced at fast fashion retailers; Nthatuoa Makhapha is a designer, creator and founder of a company that seeks to preserve this incredible practice; for the hands that stitch and those who wear, simultaneously. Her name sake, Nthatuoa, is Sesotho for “my loved one” – a poignant reflection given to her as her guiding name in this life, and the name she has chosen to extend to her company, Nthatuoa Crafts. The art of crochet is an ancient, cultural practice found to have existed all of the planet – so it’s hard to pinpoint its origin story – however, the oldest needle that has been discovered dates back 60 000 years, and was excavated here in South Africa; this bone needle is a rich symbol for just how innate the process of weaving or stitching is to the human experience, both now and in ancient memory.
Nthatuoa weaves together her own vision of entrepreneurship and design; and in our conversation, her deepest link between sustainability is with living wages and value towards her growing crochet-team. These sentiments act as a beautiful remedy towards the dire job-market in South Africa; Nthatuoa is a pioneer, and we are so excited to share her thoughts through our interview.
We love the energy and care that your brand encompasses – how did Nthatuoa Crafts begin?
I am an introverted person and this has always affected my social skills in general. In 2017 when I was doing my third year in Law school I got diagnosed with social anxiety. This is when I started trying different things; from volleyball to all kinds of things; I picked up crocheting very fast and I loved it because it is very therapeutic and meditative. In 2019 I decided to take a break from school and that’s when I founded the brand. I had just moved to Cape Town for the first time; I had just been exposed to so many things and so many ideas and I decided I want to pursue crafts because it has always been a huge part of who I am.
When I started I was very much passionate about home décor and crafts in general. I didn’t not imagine the brand taking this route at all. But I realised that as you get to know yourself better… things also just unfold for the better. And right now I’m embracing who I am, and how I communicate to the world through my crafts- I guess a simple answer would be to express myself in ways I couldn’t through words.
What does the term #handmadewithlove mean to you and your relationship to fashion?
There’s so much work that goes into handmade garments, for me it means pouring out passion into creating something out of nothing with your bare hands and enjoying it to the fullest. It means I find joy and meaning in the trial and error to come up with a meticulous and designed and handcrafted garment. It is a pleasure that you see when something you envision comes to life. It also includes the process of picking and gathering the right material and the right colours that align with the brand or the person who is creating such garment.
The term for me in regards to fashion means an intentional process to produce a garment that holds so much sentiment. I always see handmade as superior because it takes time and it is meticulously made. It means creating loved clothes that hold so much story, from the person who designed it, why they chose certain colours and that design.
A big part of your journey has been centred around sustainability. Could you tell us more on why sustainability matters to you as a designer?
It is such a broad concept that most of us young designers fail to understand. We want to check all the boxes and that’s close to impossible and unrealistic. Our core values at Nthatuoa Crafts is to impact our community positively and to communicate a positive image for African talent and innovation. We are a job creation venture and this means not only creating jobs for women with the same skills but also defending fair wages.
One of the brand’s core values is fair and just compensation for artisans and workers in order to make an impact and to compensate their time and their skills faily. It includes aspects of fair trading, this means that the workers are paid a decent wage and that their working conditions are closely monitored to ensure they are fairly treated. Nthatuoa stands to defend fair wages, working conditions and workers’ rights, sustainable livelihoods and minimal use of water.
In a fashion landscape where crochet pieces are being sold cheaply by fast fashion brands, what can you tell us about the practice of crochet that makes it important to honour and preserve?
Crocheting is such an intentional skill. It is very therapeutic and holds so much sentiment to the makers. It also relieves stress and depression. We are almost all stressed by the activities of our lives these days; crocheting is one of the things that one can pick up and learn to allow themselves to just be creative and take off their minds from stressful tasks. The mind is free and relaxed when crocheting. The repetitive and continuous stitching transforms the mind into a sort of a mindfulness that is very similar to meditation. Without actually meditating the traditional way, you are reaping the benefits of meditation through crocheting. If you are somebody that has failed repeatedly on your resolution to start meditating, you should probably allow yourselves to try crocheting
I’ve also read that our brains release dopamine that affects our emotions and functions like a natural antidepressant. Scientists believe that crafts, such as crocheting, can make us feel happier and better about ourselves. Given the stressful tasks these days, from work to home and living on a forever changing and evolving planet; I think this is something that we should preserve and pass on to younger generations.
You are embarking on a journey of working with more ladies on your team from July, and it’s so amazing to see young entrepreneurs in South Africa making an impact – what is the vision ahead for Nthatuoa Crafts with this expanded team?
I currently started with three ladies and I wish for our team to crochet this year. I am working towards growing and for every one to perfect whatever skill they are good at; be it knitting or crocheting. I hope to have a full team that can work from home independently and still produce the same garment. Another thing that I’m also looking forward to is being able to send back orders timely because I’m not alone anymore.
Other than that I hope this year we’ll be able to attend a retreat to teach us about finances in general. It is one thing to create jobs but it is also important to equip myself and the team with the right tools to use money effectively and enjoy the fruits in our hands – We should be able to create generational wealth through what we do.
Could you offer any advice to someone looking to start their own brand, that you had wished you had known starting out?
Every designer should be aware of the challenges before they start so that they can make an informed decision. It is one thing to love what we do; but it comes with challenges that we have to decide if it’s a life you want to live or not. Getting a mentor is very important. Someone who has been there before you and can guide you towards the right direction, how to network and social in general. I have been on an island for a while because I didn’t want to be distracted and also I work better when I’m alone. But it took me so long to see the light and the direction until I was assigned different mentors; so I’d recommend mentors and I wish I had one the first year.
I also think it’s important to be self-compassionate. It’s a very treadful industry. We have to learn as entrepreneurs to take care of ourselves each and every day and be compassionate to ourselves. I had attached my worth to my circumstances for such a long time; I ended up feeling not worthy of love, friendships and success because I felt like I was struggling so much and I didn’t deserve to show the world who I really am or love.
I wish I learned not to attach my worth and identity to the struggles that I went through. We need to fail fast and learn faster and still know regardless of where we are in life; we are worthy of all the dreams we have and achieving them. Good things take time – Really… they do. We have to allow ourselves to make mistakes and learn. I wish I knew I won’t just move to Cape Town and live the dream.
I had to learn (and still have to learn) a few things to get to where I am. And that was only through patience. We have to be patient with our craft and trust that things are unfolding as they should. It’s okay to not rush or do what everyone is doing. We need to normalise slowly and generally take care of ourselves. I had to learn the hard way when it comes to self care and I wish for young designers to not repeat the same mistakes. We have to know how to take care of ourselves before anything else, to love ourselves more and make it a habit to rest and get rejuvenated.