Women’s group uses old tricks to weave its way to success

Makena Textile Workshop
Some members of Makena Textile Workshop at work in Meru town. PHOTO | GITONGA MARETE 

Walking into the hall, one might mistake it for a living museum. At least five women are straightening sheep wool using old metallic plates fitted with spikes, while others pedal wooden wheels as they spin it into yarns.

At a corner, their colleagues — perched on high stools — meticulously weave mats and carpets.

The only sounds you hear are the foot bumps on pedals and mute thuds on threads as weavers, who occasionally whistle a tune, strengthen them. This could as well be a scene shot in a medieval cottage industry in India.

Spinning is an ancient textile art in which animal or synthetic fibre is twisted to form yarn.

For years, this was done using the spindle and distaff, but it was the invention of the spinning wheel in India between 500 and 1,000 AD that revolutionised the art.

For nearly four decades, members of Makena Textile Workshop in Meru town have weaved and sold thousands of carpets and floor mats using the traditional method of picking and spinning wool.

The women group’s story is that of resilience, dedication and hope.

Founder member Rosemary Muthoni recalls that in 1979 when a group of 50 women started weaving mats for fun and as a way of making some little money, they did not expect the idea would attract a Norwegian tourist who offered to sponsor them.

He donated some equipment, including five walking wheels and trained them on how to weave and sew different types of carpets.

“As time went by, some members fell off but we soldiered on and have made our living from this project,” Ms Muthoni, a mother of six who looks younger than her 70 years said, adding that currently they are 16.

She said that they discovered the potential of the business after selling carpets worth Sh40,000 in 1990.

“That was a lot of money then and making such sales opened our eyes. We realised that the project had prospects and registered the group as a business venture so that we could continue getting support from our sponsors. But the sponsorship ended in 1985 after which we set off on our own,” she said, adding that they later moved to the Kenya Industrial Estates (KIE) sheds where they are currently based.

She explained that they source wool from Timau, in Buuri sub-county, where ranch owners keep sheep. They buy at least 130 kilos per month. After the separation, the wool is then washed using soap and hot water. “We don’t use chemicals to wash the wool because that would lead to contamination. We always want to minimise use of chemicals in all the processes,” she said.

They weave carpets and door mats of all sizes. They also make other items such as table mats and mobile phone wallets.

The group makes an average of 10 carpets each month and to give them different colours, they use dye. The carpets, which are tailored to clients’ specifications, go for between Sh2,500 and Sh10,000 each depending on size.

The largest one, which measures three metres long and two a half metres wide, is goes for Sh52,000. Ms Muthoni recalled that when they realised that rent was becoming too expensive, they bought their current premises on mortgage at Sh700,000.

“We struggled to pay the money but it was worth the struggle because the premises are now ours and we don’t worry about rent,” she said.

Asked why they still use traditional equipment to weave, she said they love the art, since “it is interesting and enjoyable. Besides, we want our products to be unique and although they are more expensive people still buy them because they are more durable than the synthetic ones.

‘‘Even if we buy modern equipment we will continue using the traditional spinning wheel,” she said.

Mary Kanario, who specialises in weaving, said she was trained in the art and loved her job. “Weaving is an art and the moment you get used to it you don’t want to leave it. I derive satisfaction from working with fibre besides the income,” she said.

According to Ms Muthoni, the group has embarked on an aggressive marketing campaign targeting events and exhibitions .

However, they are faced with the challenge of finances since they have not lately secured good sales.

“People don’t seem to prefer these original and durable designs because they are getting cheap synthetic products.

‘‘We have at least 100 carpets in our store but soon we will sell them because our marketing efforts are bearing fruits since we have had several inquiries. We are also seeking partnerships with some investors who will assist us to buy modern weaving and sewing equipment to improve our production,” she said.

She said they were also recruiting young members since most of them are over 50 years old.

“Students from technical institutes come for attachment to get practical skills on weaving and sewing. These are the people we target with the aim of bringing them on board,” she added.