MaXhosa preserves & purveys Xhosa culture one stitch at a time
"Growing up, I believed knitwear was part of my DNA," says knitwear designer Laduma Ngxokolo.
"My mother was a designer in the '80s and while I was in high school I designed my first sweater. The process was like magic to me."
Ngxokolo's MaXhosa label has established itself as a uniquely African heritage luxury brand. MaXhosa is rooted in culture and Xhosa history, drawing from traditional Xhosa beadwork and attire to create its signature bold, colourful, geometric-patterned, luxuriously knitted textiles. "We are instilling black pride. We want people to have an idea that in Africa there is and always has been luxury," he says.
Looking at examples of traditional Xhosa beadwork and MaXhosa's range of printed textiles side by side, it becomes clear that the visual cues, motifs and colours in Ngxokolo's work paint a picture of what Xhosa culture looks like when you distil it to its traditional wear.
"The Xhosa people are known for their boldness and astonishing colours; we always aim to showcase this in design," says Ngxokolo.
The making of a MaXhosa garment is a skilful balance of inspiration, tradition, innovation and experimentation. As an expert in textiles, Ngxokolo - who started studying textile design at high school in Port Elizabeth and studied textile futures at master's level - is creating his own definition of craftsmanship by combining old and new techniques, machine-made and handmade processes, and constantly exploring new ways of creating his products.
But it all starts with the pattern - the Xhosa beadwork-inspired pattern. This informs the choice of material or combination of materials Ngxokolo uses, be it strictly mohair, a combination of mohair and merino wool, or silk. "I love experimenting with patterns, and this is how we come up with various material choices. It all has to make sense and still have a quality look and feel," he says.
"The design starts with inspiration, then it is translated into a sketch or pattern. The patterns are digitised and we play around with the colours and how they may fit with the pattern. Our raw materials come in the form of yarn. We then dye the yarn in our core colours, depending on the fabric we want. We send the digitised version to our programmer, who inputs the program into our knitting machine. From the machine, the fabrics come out and are cut to shape, and some of the knits are hand-finished," he says of the standard MaXhosa production process.
We are instilling black pride. We want people to have an idea that in Africa there is and always has been luxuryLaduma Ngxokolo
However, things work a little differently at the MaXhosa Atelier - the brand's new made-to-order offering. In a time when fashion has become defined by lightning speed and mass production, Ngxokolo has taken control of his production process and bought his own factory, enabling him to create bespoke items - an impressive feat in the South African fashion landscape.
"There is exceptional craftsmanship applied as it is not our standardised process of creating the knits. We start with the conceptualisation and because there are highly technical elements, it is broken down to a team to all work towards one vision. We look at the right raw materials to be used and we sample. After sampling, we consider the look and feel, consult the client on how the colour looks on fabric, and have them come for a fitting while the garment is in process," Ngxokolo says.
"We are now responsible for the entire design process, from receiving yarn to the final product. We are able to prototype and can customise items based on client feedback. This is very big for us," he says.
What started in 2012 as a range of knitted jerseys to provide Xhosa initiates with a stylish yet culturally significant brand to wear, has since grown into a diverse offering including womenswear, rugs, cushions and even beaded cellphone cases.
But it is not just about creating garments and lifestyle products for Ngxokolo; he is weaving a very particular narrative through his textiles. With each strand of ethically sourced kid mohair, merino wool and silk he uses, Ngxokolo is preserving his own heritage and the vast history of Xhosa culture. He is creating a cultural legacy that will continue to resonate as the years and trends go by.
"Craft is a form of cultural preservation, as it is a skill handed down from one generation to the next. These skills are also tied to the story of the people as well as their lineage. Vast cultures across the continent work with craft to remember who they are and where they come from. Culture goes beyond language - it is in the food, and even the colours," Ngxokolo says.