TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

TAFA Members Talk: Valerie Hearder of African Threads

Valerie Hearder presenting at a talk and showing a traditional  beaded skin apron worn as a wedding skirt by the Ndebele in South Africa.

In an effort to give a voice to TAFA members, I am running a series here on Fiber Focus called, "TAFA Members Talk".  Valerie Hearder is both a working artist, making art quilts and giving workshops on various quilting techniques and a small importer.  She works with women's groups throughout South Africa, focusing on embroidery projects, but offering traditional Zulu and Ndbele crafts as well.  Valerie responded to two questions I posted as a spring board for discussion, one on fair trade and the other on travel.

 Telephone wire baskets by Zulu craftsmen. 
Coloured wire is recycled into gorgeous baskets.

How do you define fair trade or what is green?  What support do you have in your community?  How do you educate consumers on product and pricing?  Do you think you can compete well against mainstream, commercial products?  Where do see the fair trade/green movement going in the next 10 years?

I have defined my business by fair trade principles as a social entrepreneur. It’s my personal code of wanting to create a fair income for women that guides me, not fair trade certification.
I know other textile importers in my small community and we talk a lot and share marketing ideas. I am into the concept of “wikinomics” which is based on helping each other and sharing information. Sharing just seems natural to me as a quilt maker.  I don’t see my fair trade friends as “the competition”. The more we work together and help each other, the more we all succeed and that has a positive impact on women in the third world.  

 Valerie Hearder: "I bought this jug and mug from this potter
in Johannesburg last year. 
I use them everyday and they remind me of Africa."

I educate my customers by presenting an informative web site and by giving illustrated talks about the conditions and realities of the maker’s lives that I buy from.  It's very important to educate customers about how their shopping choices has a huge impact on someone's life in the third world. I don’t have a shop but do small shows, talks and on-line sales. My new web site should be launched in about mid-August. www.africanthreads.ca  I do think that I can compete with mainstream commercial products: people are interested in the story behind the work and the stories sell the works. Customers are more aware that they are connecting with and supporting women's empowerment in the third world and can feel good about getting something beautiful as well.
How do I educate buyers about pricing?  I tell them that when they see something cheap from the third world they can be sure that maker got a pittance. I explain that I buy outright at fair prices for the makers, and take all the risk if the product doesn't sell.
I have an amazing network of supporters for African textiles and crafts in the quilting community and also through the Grandmothers-to-Grandmothers Campaign. This movement has over 250 groups of active women in Canada who really care about women in Africa. What I’m doing is a natural fit with them as I give 15% of my profits to this group to support Grandmothers in Africa.

Valerie Hearder: "This is my little store house. 
It was the old "summer kitchen" which was built onto our house 
in about 1850.  It sits between 2 apple trees."

Where and how often do you travel?  What do you love/hate about it?  What challenges do you face culturally?  Is your local community interested in what you do?  What are the greatest lessons learned for you?  What are your long term goals?


It’s become more stressful to travel but now that I’ve developed a strong working relationship with women’s groups in South Africa I travel more frequently there. It's part of fair trade to visit and know the people I buy from. I’ve also just launched a new project to lead a cultural tour to South Africa next year.

Valerie Hearder's suitcase: "This is my suitcase on my trip last 
year to South Africa. I packed a bag full of embroidery 
threads that has been donated by lots of different women 
in Canada. I distributed the threads to various women's
sewing groups I visited during my 6 weeks in South Africa."

Interested in going to South Africa with Valerie? Visit her blog for more information.

"Ndebele Painted village that we'll visit on my tour 
next year."  Valerie Hearder of African Threads.

Visit Valerie's member post on TAFA to see all her links: facebook fan page, shop on Etsy, and more!

Zulu doll maker from rural KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.
Dolls available through African Threads.



  1. Fascinating documentary on this marvelous talent. I enjoyed it and tweeted it too.

  2. It was interesting to read about your fair trade shopping experiences and your relationship to the Grandmothers of Africa.

    Your generosity from your sales are commendable.


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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