On the small mezzanine level of a house in Johannesburg, the Wrapt team is busily working at knitting machines. It’s been a few months since they joined Hannelie Bekker’s new knitwear label but already Oupa Nhovela, Anna Setloboko and Felicity Mhlanga have created multiple designs in beautiful, colourful yarns. Next week they launch a spring/summer collection.
Hannelie who worked as a television executive for more than two decades, sits at her dining room table where she manages the administration of the start-up. Upstairs is where she and her team make knitwear using pure, natural fibres: cotton, merino wool, organic silk from Japan and linen from Lithuania.
Oupa, Anna and Felicity construct garments from start to finish. They each operate a knitting machine, which they use to knit the different pieces of a garment. After the pieces have ‘rested’ the pieces are steamed which settles the stitching and shape. Once this is done they put the garment together, using a combination of hand work and a linker (a sewing machine for knitting). The result of their hard work is a collection of scarves, jumpers, wraps, gloves, and tops which feel soft and luxurious. They are light in weight and the yarns hand dyed, using non-toxic dyes.
Hannelie sources yarn from a small female-owned company, ColourSpun, which hand-dyes merino wool, cotton fabric and yarn, using only Global Organic Textile Standard certified dyes and processes. The merino is South African (mostly Eastern Cape). The cotton is from SA as well as India. For the summer collection, she has sourced small amounts of silk from Japan and linen from Lithuania.
Hannelie, surrounded by swatches of knitted squares, boxes of colour samples and some finished products talks about her relationship to knitting. She likes the control she has over the finished product and enjoys the tangibility and concreteness of knitting. And, if this wasn’t enough of a reason to start Wrapt, she loves wearing knits, and says, “South Africa has a curious dearth of supply”.
Before taking up knitting as a career, Hannelie managed and bought television channels, bought international programmes, and commissioned and managed local ones. Despite loving the variety and stimulation of the work, she gradually became exhausted by organizational dramas and disillusioned by corporate goals. Hannelie missed “being able to point to something (TV channels and shows are not objects) and saying this is what I’ve done”. But before launching her new business, she had to establish whether she could make money from knitting. The answer was clear that it was not going to be from hand-knitting, but perhaps from machine knitting.
On her last television business trip for to London, Hannelie bought a second-hand plastic bed machine and subsequently found a number of vintage metal bed ones locally. Last year she enrolled for a part-time design course at the Gauteng fashion school, LISOF and went to Seattle in the US to do a ten-day course at The Knitting School. Hannelie realised couldn’t generate meaningful income if she were the only one designing, knitting, finishing and marketing. With the small team she can produce enough product to generate enough income.
Hannelie approached Harambee, a not-for-profit social enterprise that helps solve youth unemployment. They sent her three people (without knitting machine experience) to interview who became friends while they were waiting for her. “We know how difficult it is to get the chemistry right. I employed them all,” Hannelie says. Besides having learnt to use the knitting machines, Oupa now writes patterns using Excel. Felicity who has a diploma in human resources will care of HR matters and Anna is taking increasing responsibility for stock keeping and dispatch, and generally learning how the business side of things works.
Hannelie does the design work by thinking of shapes first, ones that will flatter most body types. She then thinks of interesting ways to construct the shapes and what yarns to use. “Finally, I have to figure out a palette,” she says.
Wrapt colours are beautiful. “I’d always thought of myself as a minimalist when it came to colour – but I am endlessly seduced and distracted by colour possibilities.” A neutral colour is the background to most designs, with bold or vibrant colours introduced in the details.
Find out for yourselves what Wrapt creates. Make an appointment to visit the studio or visit their open house next week. The invitation to the open house says to expect airy tees, tanks and tunics made from pure merino wool, cotton, linen and silk. “There is also a delectable summer version of our almost-famous Wrapt wrap.”
To shop or browse, visit wrapt.co.za and see @wraptknitwear on Instagram for details of the open house on Thursday 13th (5 – 9pm) and Friday and Saturday 14 / 15 September (10 – 8pm).
Image credit: Chris Noomé (main one), supplied and Jackie May