Durban - Pea-soup mist obscured the natural forest and heavy rain spoilt our first view of this off-the-beaten Midlands Meander track venue. Nevertheless, the destination was well worth braving inclement weather.
Apart from the extraordinary road to Shuttleworth Weaving, and the surrounding forest on the 40ha property, there’s also the building: a remarkable, rustic, wood and glass showroom with views of a peaceful valley.
Inside, a plethora of brilliantly hued naturally woven carpets, soft mohair shawls, jewel-coloured throws and feather-light scarves you’ll want to bundle home with you.
The Shuttleworth family is expert at what’s becoming a dying art: spinning and hand-weaving natural products into glorious creations.
Customers in New York, London and Sweden can’t get enough of the fabulous rugs and even mohair curtains, while interior decorators around South Africa, lodges in Zambia and Zimbabwe, and passing shoppers who hanker for beautiful things keep the nine staff busy virtually 364 days a year.
“We love what we do,” says Rob Shuttleworth. He and his wife Julia and their two children live in a quaint timber and glass home on the property, while his retired parents, Andy and Helen, who founded the business more than three decades ago, have a home nearby.
In the studio, a short walk from the showroom, you can, if you ask beforehand, watch the staff spinning and weaving.
It’s a fascinating process and one you’re not likely to see too often these days.
“Mohair carpets are our main focus,” said Shuttleworth. The wool comes from Angora goats in the Karoo.
“We don’t sell that much mohair product locally – it’s high-end stuff – but we have regular buyers in New York and other countries.
“The business has two prongs: the showroom, where you can buy anything you see, and a custom order department, where you can select colours, sizes, styles and so on and we make it up for you.”
The spinning of wool is the main focus, but, masters of innovation, the Shuttleworths also work with recycle fibres: scraps of mohair from the big spinning wools, which they wash and reconstitute, and interestingly, also polypropylene.
“This is similar to Coke bottles,” says Shuttleworth. “It’s extruded into tiny fibres which we hand-spin into thick thread. We make rugs from this, which we supply to a number of South Africa lodges.
“It’s highly durable and very cleanable – you can spill wine or tomato sauce on it and just hose it off. It dries quickly.”
The showroom has a variety of mohair products, from beautiful, heavy hand-spun double bed blankets to smaller throws.
There is also bamboo mohair and the traditional fluffy mohair, which is used for scarves and shoulder wraps.
The creation of a product does not guarantee instant process, we established. It takes about two weeks from start to finish, with the weaving just one step.
“There’s the sourcing of the yarn, then the spinning, the dyeing, setting up the loom. Then, after you’ve woven the carpet, each little thread has to be (hand) tied off.”
The Shuttleworths have fine arts degrees and they love the creativity involved in the business.
“Julia is in charge of the stressful bit – the dyeing, and trying to get the colours right. With custom orders from decorators, this must be an exact science. Sometimes we Fedex up to seven swatches to American clients before they’re happy with a particular shade.”
A massive 9m-wide loom occupies pride of place in the workshop, which with its quaint spinners is like a step back in time.
This was recently used to create a huge custom-made mohair rug for a customer in the US. “It was the biggest we’ve ever made, measuring 8m by 5.5m,” said Shuttleworth. “It took 150kg of mohair and seven people to weave. It was massive and really beautiful.”
Shuttleworth has become a dab hand at “making a plan” when it comes to repairs – as evidenced by an old gumpole used as a component on the large 9m-loom.
“I don’t want to sound corny,” he says, “but as much as we need to make a profit, we’re in this for the lifestyle. Living off the grid, with solar and gas power, a small generator, spring water, growing our own veggies and so on, and spinning yarn by hand, is all part of what we love.
“We also have the pleasure of knowing that each rug we sell is of the highest, purest quality – and though you might find something cheaper and mass-produced from China, say, in a shopping mall, it certainly doesn’t have the quality, smell, feel and touch of our products.” - Peta Lee, Sunday Tribune