The Process of a tapestry

The Design

Once the artist has produced the design a hi res image is printed which will serve as reference during the cartoon annotation and the weaving process. A second print is then done to the scale of the tapestry to serve as the cartoon template.

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Charting the colours

Over the years the studio has developed several hundred colour charts, with each colour assigned a number. These numbers are written onto the cartoon to indicate where it needs to be woven and in what shape.

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Teams of up to six weavers weave the intricate shapes translating and amplifying the artist’s original design into tapestries that hang in museums and private collections around the world. Depending on the size and intricacy of the work the weaving process can take between a month and six months.



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Mags started her career weaving works from artists like Cecil Skotnes, Cecily Sash,

Edouardo Villa, Ruth Levy and Sydney Khumalo.

History of the studio

The Stephens Tapestry Studio has its roots in the north of Swaziland, (now Eswatini), a tiny monarchy between South Africa and Mozambique.

In the the late 1940s Coral Stephens moved from Johannesburg with her husband Robert – Bob – to a remote mountainous region where Bob established a commercial forestry operation. Coral’s well-meaning friends had given her a small loom to keep her occupied in what was to surely be a tedious life for a housewife. Coral, however, had no intention of being bored or a housewife.

Sylvia Mantanga, a Xhosa woman, had come with Coral from Johannesburg. Sylvia had been taught weaving by Swedish missionaries at a rural school in the Eastern Cape province where a burgeoning industry of angora goat farming was taking place. Angora goats produce the rich robust mohair with which Coral Stephens fabrics became synonymous.

Friends from Johannesburg and investors in the the forestry plantation – many from Europe and UK – visited Boshimela often staying for weeks at a time. Invitations became sought after to the house where lunch merged into afternoon tea and then to sumptuous dinners which ended well after midnight.

News spread about the curtains and carpets that adorned the house and orders began to flow in, initially from houseguests and then their friends. Coral’s reputation for bespoke and avant garde fabrics gained increasing traction and ultimately caught the eye of a famous American textile designer, Jack Lenor Larsen. He developed a range with Coral and her fabrics were launched in the USA. Prestigous orders for corporate clients, theatres and private homes followed.

Murrae Stephens, Coral’s grand-daughter in law took over the business in 2001. Under her direction the studio continues to thrive and Coral Stephens handwoven fabrics have increasingly become a mainstay for interior designers around the world.

Marguerite Stephens, Coral’s daughter, was a child when the weaving business began and she grew up with mohair, looms and weaving well entrenched in her DNA

Her journey back into the life to which she was always destined to live was through studying occupational therapy at the University of the Witwatersrand where she learned to weave at an upright Gobelin style loom.

In the early 1960s Marguerite and Coral went to an exhibition of South African artist Cecil Skotnes. A woodblock on the show caught Coral’s eye and she told Cecil it would make a marvelous tapestry. When he agreed, Coral – in her inimitable way – declared that her daughter would weave it. Thus Marguerite’s career as a tapestry weaver began. Cecil’s tapestry sold instantly and he and Marguerite split the proceeds. He also gave her the woodblock which still hangs in her Johannesburg home, as does an edition of that first tapestry.</p

Marguerite collaborated extensively with Skotnes in the early days  but gradually she started working with a broader range of South African and global artists.

Her tapestries began to show at fairs around the world and adorn the walls of blue chip companies, convention centres, stock exchanges and the homes of eminent collectors. Famously a 23m tapestry made in collaboration with Judith Mason was commissioned for the Royal Hotel in Durban where it still hangs today.

In the 1980s Marguerite met up with a young William Kentridge and began collaborating with him. William was immediately taken with the amplified textural interpretation of his work and he has ever since worked extensively with the studio. It was in a large part through this collaboration that tapestries produced in the studio are shown in the world’s best known museums and galleries, and are coveted by collectors around the world. Kentridge tapestries are sold and exhibited mostly through William’s three primary galleries – Goodman Gallery (Johannesburg, Cape Town and London), Marian Goodman Gallery (New York, Paris and London) and Lia Rumma Gallery (Naples, Milan).

The third generation of Stephens women is now running the tapestry studio. My name is Christine Weavind (I know, I know – my mother married phonetically well). I formally took over the Stephens Tapestry Studio at the end of 2016. I learned to weave when I was 7, sitting beside my mother at the loom. I began rendering cartoons when I was about 17 and, while I continued studying and ultimately working as a financial journalist, I remained involved in the business. During this time I developed the cartoon templates of four tapestries designed by local artists and oversaw their production.

In a strange nod to my grandmother, I have produced two monumental carpets, and a third is currently in production. The first of these was 7.5m x 5.5m and had to be woven on two looms. We wove the connecting edges in a jigsaw shape so the join would in the end be invisible. These carpets have been designed by Misha Kahn through the Friedman Benda gallery in New York and Los Angeles.

Developing the cartoon from the artist’s original design is an intense process that can take months depending its complexity and the ultimate size of the tapestry – typically not smaller than 2m2.

The maquette is first professionally photographed to get a hi-resolution image. A print is then made to the size of the tapestry. This is done in strips which have to be stuck together due the scale required.

Thousands of colour charts have accumulated in the tapestry studio over the past 60 years, and each colour and hue has been assigned a number.

Using the original maquette as reference, each area on the cartoon is marked with a corresponding colour. During the process, a lot of changes are made. Areas of the design too complicated or unnecessary to weave are removed. William often uses maps as a background to his tapestries and these need to be heavily edited to make them weavible and to “work” on the produced tapestry.

By the time the printed image is ready to be handed to the weavers to pin behind the warp thread, it is covered in lines and numbers delineating areas of a different colour and that colour’s reference number. Typically of swathes tippex and bits of glued-on paper add to the mess. And amazingly, from this chaos comes develops the tapestry. It is miraculous.

The studios combined now employ 28 women, many of whom are grandchildren of the original team employed by my grandmother. The Stephens Tapestry Studio is an all women operation – except of course for some of the artists – and some of the goats.

Stephens Tapestry Studio founder Marguerite Stephens with the
3m x 4.75m artwork “And when he returned”. This work was shown at the Zetz Mocaa museum in Cape Town in 2019/2020.