Together for tomorrow


Q&A: Sibabalwe Ndlwana finds sustainable design solutions in traditional practice and nature

by | Mar 25, 2022

Sibabalwe Ndlwana is a Cape Town-based weaving artist, textile designer, and researcher. Her practice as a textile maker focuses on utilising the meditative processes of handweaving, weaving together personal narratives, memory, and abstract landscapes while paying homage to ancient artisanal practices. Sibabalwe is the founder of textile design studio Ingyeyo textiles, and co-founder and organiser of Loomlife with Nkuli Mlangeni-Berg, designer and founder of The Ninevites.

On the 2nd of April, as a part of the ICA Live Arts Festival, Sibabalwe will be sharing a live, immersive demonstration, Dancing Botanical, which explores dyeing with local plants, the fluidity of the process, and the unpredictable joy it evokes. In the process, a community cloth will be created and participants will learn how to make a non-toxic botanical dye recipe that they can recreate at home.

Ahead of the festival, we caught up with Sibabalwe to find out more about her practice.

How has your practice allowed you to reimagine the textile and fashion industry?

Weaving has been an invitation to a life-long process of discovery, reconnection, and making new connections, patience, and infinite possibilities. It has made me consider and understand the whole textile and fashion value chain differently. This learning is ongoing.

By constructing a piece of cloth from scratch, I make more thoughtful choices from yarn selection to building relationships with local community farms and hand-spinners and dyers. Nature is an extraordinary colour library and natural dyeing keeps reminding me to never assume what colour I’ll find in a plant, bark, fruit, and flower. I’m constantly aware that I am working on nature’s schedule, not my own.

My Masters thesis research focused on finding ways to reduce the extreme water pollution produced by the textile industry, using local plant-based pigments to develop a non-toxic alternative textile dye range. The plant dyes explored were derived from fynbos and other indigenous plants. Making plant-based dye palettes takes time, another important ingredient, and an abundant resource worth slowing down for. And these dyes can easily compost and decompose, adding nutrients to your garden. Or be refreshed and reapplied in your own clothes or home interiors giving tired materials and spaces new life, and ultimately keeping them out of the landfill for longer! Plant-based pigments also provide endless opportunities for medicinal and anti-bacterial colour, unique hues, and even palettes that can be made from weeds, or food and floral waste while simultaneously supporting less harmful and direct alternatives to landfill and cleaner waterways.

There are so many ways in which working with natural colour can connect us deeply to people, place, and the planet. I think learning about how we form our materials and textiles can help us to form better textile value chains in the long run.

What is the significance of indigenous African weaving traditions and material dyeing methods in your work?

I think there is so much we can learn about sustainable and regenerative design solutions if we look closely into our indigenous textile cultures and traditions throughout Africa and in the rest of the world. These cloth-making communities carry a deep reservoir of expertise about self-sufficient processes and systems of production values that are quickly being forgotten.

One (of many) brilliant examples of designers using innovation through cultural preservation that comes to mind is, Bobby Kolade. He is a Nigerian-German designer who grew up in Uganda and used an ancient process of transforming fig bark into a vegan leather alternative. Bark cloth is the oldest textile known to mankind according to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

What we consider “valuable” is a question I often think about. It is creative and adaptive efforts, such as Kolade’s, that highlight the value of our stories and the importance of the reinterpretation of indigenous skills and insight to create sustainable textiles and innovative production systems that are rich in heritage, meaning, and lasting qualities for the future.

What are your favourite plants and materials to work with?

Aloes fascinate me. Aloe vera is a common household plant known for its skin healing properties and is also known as a good natural mordant to use in natural dyeing. Mordants create a chemical bind on natural fibres to help the dye bond to the fibres or fabric.

Lemons, though a fruit, are great too. They can really come to the rescue as a natural dyer. Especially when experimenting with iron modifiers (mordants), lemons often work like a colour eraser or colour recovery for me. Honestly, there are so many plants I have yet to discover and experiment with. That’s what I look forward to the most.

When it comes to weaving, I love the textures that come when blending wools with plant fibres like bamboo and cotton. For dyeing, silks and merino wool are at the top of the list.

Where do you go when you are looking for inspiration?

I’d like to think I source inspiration freely, as much as possible. Yet I often circle back to being inspired by nature, science, architecture, trail runs, and the intimate relationships between cloth, memory, and place. I’ve been looking through family photo albums recently. I love the geometry and skilful gesture of tapestry weaving in agaseke basketry, a type of traditional Rwandese woven basket. One of these baskets stores some of my weaving tools in my home studio.

You are also the founder of textile design studio, Ingyeyo textiles. What does sustainable design mean to you?

Textiles are a major global polluter, contributing to increasing greenhouse emissions, environmental degradation, water pollution, and hazardous health impacts. At this point, there’s little to no room to be indifferent about sustainable production, particularly when textiles are involved.

I believe there needs to be more investments made towards solution-focused research when we review the full lifecycle of the textile value chain from start to end. We also need to prioritise quality and lasting materials which are traceable and sourced from renewable sources. We need to constantly create opportunities to reuse and recycle as much as possible.

From the raw materials like seeds or animals that provide fibre for textiles, to the plants for dye, all the way through to the final product’s life, we have to ask ourselves: Is our production chain connected? And who benefits both in and beyond the supply chain, including local communities and the environment?

I am continually discovering possibilities in circular design solutions and regenerative processes that are still being practiced on the continent, yet have been overlooked. For instance, in bark cloth making in Uganda, the bark is peeled from the trees during the rainy season, and the area of the trunk that has been stripped is often ‘bandaged’ with banana leaves to promote healing. If the trees are well cared for, the bark can be harvested annually.

Finding sustainable alternatives is essential and being proactive in finding solutions looks different to everyone. For me, solutions to sustainable design can often be found in our everyday life, in nature, and the unexpected.

Can you tell us about some recent collaborative projects?

Two that stand out are my collaborations with local fashion brand, SELFI, and furniture designer, Cameron Barnes.

For SELFI, I created handwoven merino scarves, using 100% merino and waverley woolen yarns, for their Uniform Collection in 2019. Each woolen scarf had the SELFI portrait icon hand-embroidered with black pure new wool. These limited edition scarves were handwoven on my handloom, at my home studio, into a plain weave structure.

I’ve also collaborated with Cameron Barnes to create a Warp Bench. It is an elegantly handcrafted red gum bench covered in hand-dyed woven textile made from natural yarns of mohair, felted wool, cotton, bamboo, and merino wool. Eucalyptus leaves and red gum wood, used in the construction of the custom bench, were used to produce botanical dyes for the accompanying handwoven textile for the Warp Bench.

What inspired you and Nkuli Mlangeni-Berg to co-found Loomlife?

The inspiration came from our mutual love for textiles, art, and design. At the time, we were trying to think of ways to combine our interests and build a community around those interests.

We launched our first weaving and natural dyeing workshop series called ‘Wine, Weave, and Beats’ in Johannesburg in 2019. We wanted to create a platform that speaks to skill exchange, slowing down, and reconnecting to play and imagination in a fun and relaxing atmosphere. We had to take an unexpected break, due to the pandemic, but we look forward to bringing these back this winter.

Loomlife aims to give anyone the ‘weaving’ tools to open the door to a lifetime of creativity. Skills, once learnt, are yours forever. We like to think of Loomlife as a creative wellness platform founded on encouraging creative engagement, building community, promoting skills development and care, while also preserving and passing on ancient techniques and rich heritage and culture in our textile stories to the next generation.

Your weaving process acts as meditation and an artistic archival practice. Can you elaborate?

I see weaving as part practice and part metaphor. I’m fascinated by the nature of weaving and of cloth-making and by how cloth-making can be a journal of thoughts and ideas in woven form, emerging one weft at a time. There is mathematical preparation necessary in the process of setting up the loom to even begin to weave. But, it is also a meditative practice where memory, meaning, and play connect, as I’m adjusting the tension of the warp threads and dressing the loom.

How will the tension affect the feel and drape of the cloth when done? As I’m selecting the colours for the yarn threads, plant or animal fibre and what pattern structure should I repeat or explore in the process? There are many choices to consider before weaving, it’s a whole process that keeps me present and open to the unexpected. I really enjoy the solitude that weaving brings. Weaving possibilities are truly infinite.

What is your daily routine?

Before I start my day I go for an early morning trail run or a walk, alternating between the base of Lion’s Head or Signal Hill or the Table Mountain foot trails [in Cape Town]. These nature journeys are often fragrant as I pass through fynbos, mountain geraniums, and sage. Each season brings something new to notice.

Writing, responding to emails, and product research occupies the rest of my mornings. Afternoons are interchangeable between pattern drafting, weaving, monthly blog post topic research, and meetings.

What are you looking forward to in the year ahead?

I’m looking forward to hosting weaving workshop events and creating commissioned work for handwoven tapestries.

For someone curious about weaving where would you suggest they go to learn?

Cape Guild of Weavers is a good resource and community of weaving enthusiasts for anyone curious to learn.

  • Cover image: Noncedo Gxekwa
  • Images in article: Supplied by Sibabalwe
  • To learn more about Sibabalwe’s work, visit her website
  • To take a look at the ICA Live Arts Festival Programme, click here
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