The making of baskets by Zulu men and women goes back beyond recorded history.  In the pre-colonisation homestead, all items were made by hand from whatever materials were available, each homestead being largely self-sufficient.  In his master’s thesis on Zulu craft, J.W. Grossert records 156 different plant materials used for basket and mat making.  Certain styles, like the delicate imisi grass baskets, are seldom seen today and collections of these are very valuable.

Because functional baskets wore out fairly quickly, they were generally unpatterned. However, a small number had patterns using grass that had been dyed dark brown using the root of the isizimane tree (Guarri/Euclea Natalensis).  When taken to Europe by Rev Lofroth, these caught the eye of buyers.  As a result, Rev Lofroth asked the weavers to look for more natural dyes; today they use over fifty different plants to create about twenty different colours.

The patterns have also become more and more complicated through the freedom engendered by the wider palette, and ideas for designs are taken from many sources.  Although designs are sometimes copied from beadwork and other sources, the weavers are adamant that there is no ‘message’ or meaning in their work.  It must be remembered that decoration is a very modern trend, and was instituted very specifically for the collector/tourist market.  Unlike beadwork, the decorated baskets are not for customary use.

Traditional, functional baskets were made for a wide range of uses, from storing medicines and herbs in the tiny little iquthu, to storing grain and vegetables underground in the roughly made isilulu.  One of the most striking shapes is that of the isichumo, a wide basket with funnel neck and flat lid, which was used for carrying beer over long distances.  This tightly woven basket would be soaked in water overnight, which allowed the fibres to swell and ensured a completely waterproof container.  The large bowl-shaped iqoma played its role when the fields had to be harvested.  Any round basket with a lid, of whatever size, was called ukhamba and stored clothing, food or anything else that could be fitted in.

Today, baskets are mostly made from ilala palm fronds, which are plentifully available.  Unfortunately, except for isizimane and the umthombothi/mdoni mixture that makes a pitch black colour, the dyes are not colourfast and should be kept out of sunlight as much as possible.  No fixative is used and, if the artist wishes, colours are muted by soaking in a mud slurry bath, or by adding wood ash or rusted metal to the dye bath.

These days the most outstanding basket weaving comes from the area around the little village of Hlabisa, inland from the Hluhluwe-Umfolosi game reserve.  A few outstanding weavers, such as the late Reuben Ndwandwe, have lifted the standard in the area to an extent that few others can compete.  Whilst Mr Ndwandwe is missed, both as person and artist, we still have the joy of the work of Beauty Ngxongo, Laurentia Dlamini and Angelina Masuku to look forward to.

The work of Rev Lofroth and his team has not only given income to thousands of women (and a few men), but has ensured that the Zulu people have given the world a gift as beautiful as their renowned beadwork.