Stephanie Bentum is a textile maker whose work has been travelling internationally through her collaborations with renowned South African designers, Lukhanyo Mdingi and MMUSOMAXWELL. Stephanie’s natural fibre of choice is wool, which she sources locally from farmers with ethical and sustainable practices. She explores felting and wool’s endless possibilities, creatively manipulating this versatile fibre into fabric. The slow practice of making textiles is followed by dyeing, in which only natural dyes are used.
This thoughtful approach to design drew us to Stephanie’s work, who was the winner of Textile Maker of Mill Award at the Twyg Sustainable Fashion Awards 2021. Out of curiosity, we asked Stephanie a few questions.
Tell us briefly about yourself.
I was born in Middleburg, Karoo and spent my first few years at Grootfontein Agricultural Development Institute outside the town of Middelburg where my father worked. He had a doctorate in wool, specialising in merino wool quality. It was only with his passing and the memories of our walks through the fields, talking about sheep, smelling lanolin and dust in the hustle of the sorting room that I started working with wool.
I have 40 years of work experience in different industries, mainly working with textiles in film production, theatre, fashion and interior applications during the 1980s. During the 90s and early 2000s, I worked in interior design and procurement. In 2006 I ‘discovered’ felt and started a felt design and manufacturing studio.
Since selling the studio in 2020, I have the freedom and time to focus on experimentation in textile designs, natural dyes and developing new products. Now, I am lucky to be working on orders for custom textiles.
What does your felting process look like?
There is something uniquely special about wool. Felting is an age-old tradition and the first man-made textile recorded. I am not reinventing the techniques but using the basic principles for experimentation and expansion. Felting textiles is both a meditative process and physical hard work.
This luxurious cloth and chunky yarn offer design opportunities. The fibres can be manipulated by adding more or fewer layers of thin handfuls of wool, working the fibres across as in weaving to create textures in sheers, drape, stiff…. Soapy water, washing and rolling the sheets of layered fibres bind the fibres. It is important to me that there is an originality in my work through the medium of handmade felt textiles and yarn.
What influences and inspires your design?
I am proudly South African and am influenced and inspired by our people, nature and our cultures. Currently I am extremely inspired by our youth finding their identity through our African renaissance in fashion.
What are your favourite fibres to work with and why?
Merino wool is my absolute favourite for the opportunities it offers for felting. By adding mohair (which doesn’t felt on its own) different textures occur. Wool is comfortable to wear, has durability and is pliable to work with in shaping the fibre into textiles. I am also starting to experiment with locally grown mopane silk and hemp.
What challenges have you encountered in your industry?
Since our mills have been steadily closing down, the price of wool and mohair has increased tremendously over the last decade. This makes it very challenging to supply our local designers and consumers with an affordable product. There is a ray of hope regarding the short supply of clean wool as Cape Wools SA, the representative industry body, is investigating relocating the washing and combing of wool in South Africa. This is so important, especially since South Africa is currently the largest supplier of sustainable wool in the world.
How does the handmade nature of your design contribute to an environmentally sustainable lifestyle and limit waste?
There is very little waste during the manufacturing of our textiles. Every bit of fibre is used. Water is reused up to a certain point after which it goes to a compost heap. This compost is then used to grow plants and herbs that make plant dyes. We use natural soap throughout the process. All our supplies are either locally grown and/or manufactured. Wool is compostable and biodegradable.
There is no silver bullet. To be considered 100% sustainable a product must be a sum of all its parts. There is always something to be improved, to do and learn. As a winner of the Twyg Sustainable Fashion Awards, I am currently working on the assessment of product and process by EcoStandard South Africa. Emissions produced by our products are mainly through the supply chain.
Tell us about your latest collaboration with MMUSOMAXWELL.
As finalists of the 2022 International Woolmark Prize, MMUSOMAXWELL presented a merino wool collection highlighting transparency throughout the supply chain. We made a textile for their collection with a blend of 80% merino and 20% mohair, hand carded and felted. This opportunity has led to this textile being tested by Intertek Italia Spa which, for me, is extremely important in understanding the durability of my textiles.
How can we sustainably revive South Africa’s textile industry?
Firstly, we need to create small, community enterprises which will be serviced by the relevant agricultural, farming and processing environments. By producing handmade, slow fashion textiles and products we will help establish a market and supply of new-world thinking. Secondly, this thinking will help shape the formal industrial investment sector, creating further growth opportunities.
Do you have any recommendations for people interested in textile making?
My first little book of inspiration was Filtz Experiment by Annette Quentin-Stoll and Robert Quentin. Claudy Jongstra is the best example of prolific creative felt works and natural dye development. On Instagram I follow Aboubakar Fofana for sublime indigo and mineral mud-dyed works, mainly with cotton. And for out of this world experimentation, take a look at Kristen Kaas.
- Cover image © Armand Dicker
- Portrait was supplied. MMUSOMAXWELL “UKHOLO – FAITH” AW22 for the Woolmark Prize 2022 sourced online. MMUSOWELL at Confections x Collections © Mikayla McClean.
- To learn more about Stephanie’s work, follow her on Instagram at @stephanie.bentum.textiles or check out her website.
- Stephanie was the winner of the Textile Maker or Mill Award at the Twyg Sustainable Fashion Awards 2021.