Knitting her way to healing

Knitting her way to healing

MASERU – AS a lecturer at the Lesotho Agricultural College (LAC), ’Matumane Matela earned a good salary and had a roof over her head. Hers is supposed to be a dream job and a good life.
But looks can be deceiving. Listen to her story and that façade instantly crumbles.

Deep down, Matela was tormented. For years she had suffered from debilitating depression.
Her life, she says, was a mess. She would miss work and shut herself from relatives and friends. Then in 2017 she started seeing a therapist who was to suggest something that immediately transformed her life.

The therapist advised her to do something that she loves to keep herself busy.
And so she started knitting, a hobby she had started as a young girl but had abandoned along the way. Slowly, she began knitting her way to healing.

Today the 39-year-old has turned what was supposed to be part of her therapy into a business.
Her first item was a knit hat that quickly attracted the notice of friends and relatives who gave her orders. Today she predominantly makes products for newly-borns and toddlers.
Her orders for winter and summer shoes, headbands, hats, dresses, puff-holders and jerseys are growing. She has tried her hand at crop tops, bikinis, swim-suites as well as jumpsuits for teenagers and young mothers.

“I learnt so many designs in a short period of time and my love for it grew even more,” she says.
Now crocheting is all she does when she is not in class as a human nutrition lecturer at the LAC’s Home Economics department.
Born and raised in Thaba-Tseka, Matela says making clothes was not entirely new to her. Her parents had a sewing business that her mother still manages. Her father now has a taxi business but he started off in the sewing shop.

“I used to visit their workshop when I was doing Form A and knit puff holders for kids – we called them ‘Malibuseng in those days. I sold them in packs.”
Matela says apart from her parents, she was also inspired by her teacher at Paray Primary School, Tsebo Lerotholi, who taught her practical courses like knitting and sewing.

She says while Lerotholi introduced her to knitting, it was her grandmother who nurtured her love for the crochet hook.
That passion for knitting however started fizzling out in secondary school as peer pressure pushed her towards other hobbies considered ‘cool’ for people of her age.
“I considered it as a low class job and I didn’t want my boyfriend to see me holding crotches and wool,” she says.

She earned a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition Degree at the National University of Lesotho (NUL) before enrolling for a diploma in Home Economics from the LAC.
Soon she was a lecturer at the college and knitting was completely forgotten.
Then episodes of depression upended her life. And so began the endless visits to therapists whose prescriptions did not seem to work until she met one in 2017 who told her to find a hobby.

Suddenly knitting was part of her life again. For a few months she knitted to keep herself busy as part of the therapy routine but as the items increased so did the orders from people who admired her work.
Before long her M100 investment in wool and crocheting hooks had grown to M2500 per month. A business had been born out of a medical condition and it was flourishing.

She is now training women and girls to knit.
She says at first it would take her a day to knit a pair of baby shoes but now she makes six pairs. Knitting has become part of her life, Matela says.
“Every time I am not doing anything I knit – whether I am travelling a long distance journey, queueing at the clinic, at home or during lunch time at my workplace.”

“At first I was relieving stress but now I use it to keep myself busy and entertained.” However, transforming the hobby into a business has not been easy.
Matela says it has been a journey full of pitfalls. Last year she faced her first huddle.
She negotiated to sell her products through an Indian-owned shop in Maseru but the deal turned sour when her margins began to shrink and she was losing money.

The shop ratcheted up the prices beyond the reach of many of her customers.
She quickly pulled out of the partnership and started selling the products herself.
That setback however taught her valuable lessons that would come in handy when she negotiated another deal with another shop at one of the malls. It helped that the shop sold strictly Lesotho products only.
“They are doing very well now,” she says.

She is now supplying another shop in South Africa.
Matela’s ambition is to own a knitting firm where she will be knitting with other women.
“I want to teach them different designs and patterns.”
She says a crocheting machine would instantly transform her business.
“I have been in talks with suppliers in China regarding the machine and their response was very promising as they said that they would make the kind I want.”

“All I will have to do is design my patterns and they will programme the machine to accept those patterns.”
While waiting for the machine Matela is training women and girls whom she is going to work with.
“I want to empower them as they are vulnerable to abuse especially when they are poor and single parents. They should create employment and stop depending on handouts.”

She is currently working with two temporary employees.
She advertises her products through social media platforms (Facebook and Instagram) which she says “are doing wonders”.
“We do career expo and I usually give out my products for display,” she says.
Matela’s business has a unique problem: Unlike other businesses that struggle to sell their products hers is battling to keep up with the demand for her products.

“I am not able to produce in large quantities as expected,” she says.
“I wish I had more people to work with so as to be able to meet the demands.”
She is also struggling to get the right wool locally, especially when knitting winter clothes.
That means she has to source the wool from Bloemfontein or Vereeniging at huge costs.

Matela says that being a wife, mother, fulltime employee and an entrepreneur is demanding.
“I schedule my work on a weekly basis, do preparations ahead of time and keep my kids busy with reading and basic skills in cooking or even engaging them in crocheting.”
She says that she has five credit hours a week for lectures.

“It gives me enough time to prepare for the upcoming lessons so that on weekends and after working hours I dedicate my time to my business. I don’t have free time.”
She says “the strong support system from both her family and colleagues” has helped her succeed.

“My husband and first born son work together to prepare supper during week days and on weekends,” she says.
Her colleagues have helped too with words of encouragement and design tips.
The business has also helped supplement the family’s income.
“We managed to clear some debts and our lives have changed for the better as we are even able to eat healthy food every time.”

Thanks to the business the Matelas can also afford vacations.
She advises other knitting entrepreneurs to be patient as the business they venture into “is not a quick cash scheme as it requires time.”
She says that they can have steady cash if they produce regularly.
“All it requires is creativity and passion to master it.”

One has to be ready to do it anytime and anywhere, Matela says.
She believes that there will come a time when the knitting business will require so much attention that she will not be able to keep her fulltime job.
“Once I have a stable market and I have the machine I need, I am going to resign (from LAC).”
“The positive feedback I get from my customers keeps me going,” she adds.

‘Mapule Motsopa

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