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Weaving the threads of Cape Town artisanal fabric

Wednesday, 31 August 2016   (0 Comments)
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How can a service design approach help local textile artisans create a sustainable future?
Francesco Mazzarella, PhD Researcher at Loughborough Design School (UK) and CPUT (SA), was in Cape Town recently to explore some solutions through engagement with local artisans. He believes that the current economic and environmental crisis is building momentum for designers to challenge the linear “take-make-dispose” model and explore sustainable strategies, services and systems.


Tell us about your research

My service design approach intends to encourage textile artisans to become a sustainable community, co-design collaborative services and scale up innovations from within an enabling ecosystem. As part of my PhD journey, from April to June 2016, I embarked in a new experience in Cape Town. Armed with the intention to map the current state of the art of the textile artisanal sector in Cape Town, I conducted a Participatory Action Research project to co-design a strategy that could boost local sustainable development.


A scoping activity with diverse stakeholders (i.e. artisans, support organisations, educators, retailers, consumers) allowed me to discover that Cape Town used to be a textile-manufacturing cluster, but in the last decades most production has been outsourced due to economic issues, and not many fabric manufacturers are active locally. Therefore, contemporary textile artisans struggle to find new supplies for their collections.


On the other hand, this challenge has become a driver for starting up businesses around (screen or block) printing on available base cloth in order to differentiate products over local as well as overseas competitors. This challenge has thus opened up the opportunity for local artisanal textiles, used both for homeware and apparel, leveraging an abundance of local design talent.


A storytelling study was conducted as initial discovery phase of my research process, followed by brainstorming around the artisans’ visions for a sustainable future, and co-creation of a strategy and service, leading to the proposition of local textile artisanship. Throughout my research journey in Cape Town, I have collaborated with a group of eight artisanal businesses using printing techniques to locally make small batches of textile and fashion products (i.e. Bbellamy & Bbellamy, Fabricnation, Indigi Designs, Lichen & Leaf, Shine Shine, Skinny LaMinx, Township, TryAnglez).


What are some of the challenges for the textile artisanal sector in Cape Town?


Through my research project, it emerged that the main issue for textile artisans in Cape Town is finding local fabric manufacturers, as well as skilled CMT teams (i.e. Cut Make & Trim), because this information is held by competitive business mindsets. The artisans have also discussed the closure of craft colleges leading to the disappearance of heritage crafts and the difficulty in finding skilled people.


Some of the key challenges for Cape Town textile artisans:


What are some of the solutions developed through the co-design process with artisans to help the sector towards a sustainable future?

A middle-up-down platform for sharing was co-designed, grounded on trust relationships, to sustain local textile artisans to organically flourish, locally and beyond. We expressed the need to co-design an open access offline forum and offline platform for sharing information about manufacturers, CMTs, retailers, support organisations, etc.

Future direction outlined by Cape Town textile artisans:



At the core of the system we placed the textile artisans, joined together as “Weaving the Threads”.


To move things forward, we outlined the need to gather informed consents (e.g. under the Creative Commons open licence) and inclusively share contacts. This would constitute the basis for setting up an open database of – classified and archived – information throughout the textiles supply chain (covering the supply of fibres, yarns, fabrics, dyes, manufacturers, printers, CMTs, fringe sectors, retailers, trade shows, support organisations, and other potential employees) to be accessible online (e.g. via a website and an app) and delivered through print-outs at meetings. To manage the database, we discussed the need to hire an admin person, potentially through an apprenticeship programme created with CPUT. Besides the database as a passive source of information, the artisans suggested to set up a collective blog to actively showcase their profiles.


Beyond its online dimension, the service was designed to have also physical touchpoints, such as quarterly meetings – to be held at the artisans’ studios, opened in turns – for sharing experiences and curating upcoming events. For example, a collective exhibition and sales event was suggested to be jointly curated, yet allowing the artisans to set their own individual stands. The artisans identified also the need for sharing a salesperson at international trade shows to enrich the database. Finally, together with the launch of an activism campaign on social media to engage a wider audience around the “Weaving The Threads” collective, we have also proposed to set an annual committee meeting to gather feedback and revise the strategy and action plan.


The model proposed was that of a non-for-profit organisation benefiting not individual businesses but the artisans’ collective as a whole, in the long term. We have envisaged that the service would benefit the proactive and self-sustainable collective of textile artisans, in partnership with CCDI and CPUT. The cost of delivery – still to be assessed – could be covered through crowdfunding as well as corporate and governmental grants, while the surplus would have been re-invested in the organisation of collective trade shows.


Finally, we have co-designed a manifesto as a value anchor for the artisans to gather together as a collective, leveraging a call for responsibility, trust, relationship, collaboration, openness, diversity, inclusivity, meaning, mindfulness, and self-sustainment.

At the end of the process, stakeholders came together at the conversation “Weaving the Threads of Cape Town Artisanal Fabric”. This session served as a prototype of a forum for sharing information and setting the strategy for the sustainability of the collaborative service. This conversation has opened up a platform for expression of insights and concerns, which has been followed up through the use of social media, making interesting topics emerge. This online communication is enabling posting requests for mutual support, as well as keeping each other up-to-date regarding the latest events for the community to participate.


My research project has envisaged that addressing social challenges within the local textile supply chain would lead to nurturing a sense of responsibility and agency. We believe that joining the efforts to build a collaborative system would open up local alternatives in terms of job creation, enhanced environmental sustainability and revitalised craft heritage. We wish this is just the beginning of a collective action for crafting a sustainable future for the Cape Town artisanal fabric.


If you want to know more about this project, check out the short video by Faisal Oluwole, student at CPUT here

More about Francesco:

Francesco describes himself as a systemic thinker with a pro-active and curious mindset, shaping his role as a service designer activating social innovation and holistic sustainability. Originally from Italy, he lived and worked (as design researcher, teaching assistant and practitioner) in Italy, the Netherlands, Brazil, Hungary, the UK, and most recently in South Africa. After a BSc in Industrial Design and an MSc in Ecodesign, both awarded from the Politecnico di Torino (in Italy), in 2014 he moved to the UK to pursue a full time PhD at Loughborough Design School, funded by the AHRC Design Star CDT. Email:


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