Cowgirlblues is a Cape Town-based dye house and design studio specializing in South African wool and mohair.
“If you take any activity, any art, any discipline, any skill, take it and push it as far
as it will go, push it beyond where it has ever been before, push it to the wildest
edge of edges, then you will force it into the realm of magic.”
— Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get The Blues
I’m a big fan of Tom Robbins, a quirky American author, you might know him. He wrote a book called ‘Even Cowgirls Get the Blues’. I loved the story. It is about women’s liberation, and a return to a more natural way of life. And it’s pretty funny.
Starting a business has been an incredibly liberating and empowering process for me I also see daily how it is empowering for my employees, all women, to have work. And increasingly I’m clear that my intention in creating the business was always to empower women in various ways.
HISTORY OF COWGIRLBLUES
After an international career as a strategy consultant, I returned to live in Cape Town. While recovering from extreme burnout I took up knitting and crafting again. Having no formal training or background in working with textiles I did a lot of experimenting with texture, patterns and colors. Frustrated at not being able to find suitable wool for a project locally, I decided to start spinning and dyeing my own, and so the idea for the Cowgirlblues brand was born.
ABOUT SOUTH AFRICA
South Africa is the second most unequal society in the world (according to the World Bank’s country ranking, and four of the other top 10 countries are our neighbours (Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Lesotho). Our unemployment rate is approx. 29%, although in many areas it’s higher than this. We have many problems with our basic education system, and the historical inequality of our apartheid political system means that people of colour are disproportionately affected. And all of this was before the Corona Virus crisis.
Unfortunately, Cowgirlblues represents the racial profile stereotype of a white owner and mostly black employees “doing the dirty work”. When I started out, I did all the work myself, and I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty doing whatever is required. As the business has grown, I have been able to employ people and my obvious choice has been to create jobs for unemployed women of colour. It is incredibly empowering to be able to work and support your family. And I think it has been a liberating process for all of us. It is going to take a long time to create a truly equal society here in South Africa, and all we can do is take it one step at a time.
As an educationally and economically empowered person I feel it is my civic duty to make a contribution to changing our society. Creating jobs and empowering all the women who work for me is the best way I can do that at the moment.
THE STUDIO AND OUR SHOP
After starting the business in my kitchen, we moved to a small space at Montebello Design Centre in Newlands and became a real business. In 2014 we opened our shop at the V&A Watershed, and we receive loads of international and local visitors here every month. We moved to a “proper” production space in Woodstock in 2015 and gradually started growing the team. Then in 2017 we moved to our current much bigger studio in Maitland. We do all our dyeing here and have a small knitting operation for our ready-to-wear items. We also have a retail shop, and because we have the space, we have craft morning every Wednesday from 10am-1pm and most first Saturdays of the month.
THE COWGIRLBLUES TEAM
“We really like working at Cowgirlblues. For us it is great to work together in a team and support our families at the same time. Working at Cowgirlblues is different from other jobs, we are able to learn new things and by that investing in our capabilities. We get new experiences and that makes us feel more confident.
Also, the team is very nice. Most of us have known each other for a long time and that feels familiar.” — Cowgirlblues Team
My team is at the heart of my business, and many of them say that working here feels like being part of a family. I take that as a huge compliment. These women are proud to work at Cowgirlblues. They are a competent, capable group of strong women whom I hugely admire and respect.
One of my ongoing priorities is to offer them opportunities for continuous improvement. Almost everyone is skilled in more than one aspect of the production process. It makes work more interesting for them if they can sometimes switch things up, and they stay motivated and engaged. Some aspects of our work are quite specific to dyeing yarns. But by learning different things such as how to use a sewing machine or a computer they build skills that could be useful in a different work environment also. That is particularly important in this crazy time of global corona virus pandemic.
We have a business practice of weekly team meetings on Wednesday that includes all employees so that everyone is informed about what is going on at work. Part of this meeting is an agenda item where employees’ questions are raised anonymously so they can feel comfortable to ask anything they want. It has been a really good way to discuss all sorts of things that might have been difficult to surface or address in any other way.