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“The Art of Zulu Wire Baskets”
Woven in South Africa
The Zulu are the largest ethnic group in South Africa and many of us
have heard of their most powerful king, Shaka, who united the fractious
tribes and created the Zulu nation in the early 1800's.
The Zulu people have long been associated with their skill and artistry
in fashioning African baskets from the native plants and grasses of
their homeland as well as for their intricate and culturally important
Now they have taken their age-old craftsmanship and applied it to a new
medium: telephone wire. These bright, washable and sturdy wire baskets,
called mbenge in the native language, come in myriad colors and intricate, mesmerizing designs.
The idea to use wire for basket weaving reportedly came from security
workers on the graveyard shift in South African factories. To while away
the hours, they would often wind and weave brightly-colored bits of
recycled telephone wire around their nightsticks.
From then on, a cottage industry was born.
Weavers around the country started making bowls, plates,
and other decorative pieces of art from what was essentially scrap metal.
Some weavers use the designs frequently found in natural fiber baskets,
while others create their own bold, new designs: swirling patterns in black-and-white or bright colors.
Over 800 full time weavers and their families are supported with a fair living wage for their amazing creations.
Since wire baskets are done mostly by men due to the difficult nature of weaving wire,
the men are able to stay home on their traditional tribal lands instead of moving to cities to look for work.
In the rural groups we work with,
the family units are preserved so that the weavers and their families can live more traditional lifestyles.
Recycled wire is rarely used anymore because of it's scarcity,
and the fact that using recycled wire produces a basket of lesser quality.
Contrary to some popular rumors, wire is not stolen from telephone poles, but due to the very high price of copper,
which is used in telephone wire, some groups are experimenting with using an annealed steel core wire.
The wire we use is custom manufactured in special colors for the weavers in the most eco-friendly and lead-free materials.
These African wire baskets can be used to store fruit, bread, or other foodstuffs, or simply admired for their beauty. They are especially functional and can be washed in warm, soapy water.