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People behind the masks: A proudly Stellenbosch story

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Every day, much of South Africa wakes up and puts on a mask. And yet, so rarely do we think about the person behind its production. A proudly Stellenbosch story.

Two months ago, proudly Stellenbosch-based homeware and accessories brand Mia Mélange was still producing their signature 100% cotton rope baskets and bags. Today, they’re registered as an essential service provider and have flipped their atelier into a manufacturing hub for fabric face masks.

The shift began in early March after a client with a medical background reached out and called for action to help produce non-medical face masks. At the time, South Africans braced for a 21-day lockdown, and the clothing and textile industry faced a sharp decline in exports, placing strain on those working in production, retail, and beyond. Owner, Jeanneke Malan, determined to support her 12-strong, all-women team immediately started researching and prototyping mask designs.

Within a few short days, the team had implemented a system that allowed them all to work remotely with the limited resources available to them. A novel experience for the team who had never worked from home before.

Babsy has been working hard preparing fabric and working on samples.

Babsy, who comes from Kayamandi, prepared fabric from rolls into manageable strips. Fina, working from her home in Klapmuts, would cut the fabric strips according to the mask pattern. Fina also cut and prepared the elastic ties. Her husband, who currently is out of work, cut and bent wire to insert into the nose seams of the masks. To keep the line working, Jeanneke would then collect the prepared fabric, elastic and wire and deliver to everyone sewing the masks from their homes. Scholar and her cousin Leonard are sewing from Scholar’s home in Klapmuts, Mam Fani is working from her home in Deflt, and Bernay in Idas Valley.

To top it off, neighbours were called in to help iron and pack in order to meet the demand for bright and beautiful Shweshwe fabric masks – providing additional employment for women in the community.

Happy kids in Klapmuts. Scholar and Fina live in Klapmuts and are working from home.

Jeanneke relentlessly supports her team, encouraging their independence and ability to support themselves and their families. A testament to this is that with some of the money made from making masks, her team surprised her by investing in a new industrial sewing machine.

One thing is for sure: making masks can unite a community. Over 50 days of lockdown later, and the production team is still going strong.

This is not the first time Mia Mélange has had to innovate. In 2019, faced with ongoing loadshedding, the team designed the ‘Eskom Planter’ – a product they can make without electricity, often sitting out on the sidewalk, enjoying some Stellenbosch sunshine while keeping productive.

No one ever said that running and growing a small business was easy. Most entrepreneurs know they’ve got their work cut out for them. Still, there is something to be said for local entrepreneurs like Jeanneke who, like alchemists, can turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. Mia Mélange has innovation in its DNA, much like the town in which it all started.

Let us support this proudly Stellenbosch brand. Buying local is crucial to protecting the livelihoods of people within our community.

Mia Mélange’s beautiful masks are available online here.