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The following is an edited and updated version of an article which originally appeared in Sawubona magazine.


Alexandra, or Alex as it is widely known, is a township of some 470 000 people situated close to the wealthy suburb of Sandton in Johannesburg.

This eight square kilometre concentration of houses, monuments, shacks and shebeens has been home to many notable and talented South Africans over the decades, including trumpeter Hugh Masekela, poet Wally Serote and renowned pennywhistle maestro Jack Lerole.


It is also the birthplace and spiritual home of the Out of Alex embroidery project, a collection of slightly less famous but undeniably talented women from Alex and the nearby settlements of Diepsloot, Ivory Park and Lanseria. Out of Alex was started in 1993 by Jennifer Dunn, in a bid to address the poverty and lack of opportunities she had witnessed while running a factory close to the township.

Her vision was to develop a business model which would allow participants to work from home, earning an income while caring for their children, grandchildren and extended families in this impoverished, HIV ravaged community.  And so Out of Alex came into being.

A period of learning and growth followed. Trainees from the community were taught 15 different embroidery stitches and given exposure to the history, techniques and traditions of hand embroidery, opening their eyes and minds to the potential of this ancient art form. From there they were given free rein to interpret the designs in their own unique, South African way. The range was also accepted into the upmarket Bryanston Organic Market, where the goods are sold to this day.


Passing the Baton

In 2005 Jennifer and her family relocated to Calitzdorp. Jennifer would not have been able to continue with the project from such a remote location and approached Bronweyn Craig, a colleague she had met at the Bryanston Market, and asked if she was interested in taking over the project.

Bronwyn bought the business and introduced a sound business structure at Out of Alex preparing it for a new period of growth.

Out of Alex was selected as one of only 10 businesses countrywide to participate in the ETU Programme, a Finnish government sponsored business development initiative aimed at providing the support and tools necessary to allow promising businesses to flourish and grow.  Designed and implemented by the Fetola Foundation, the programme has had a major impact on the business.  

The time came for Bronwyn to move onto other ventures.  Finding a replacement with the necessary vision wasn’t easy.  Bronwyn knew Out of Alex needed someone who had both business acumen and, most importantly, a heart for the “business” of empowering women.  Both these talents she found in Ursulah Vorster.  “I fell in love with the project the minute Bronwyn spoke to me about it.  My heart has always been to support women in struggling communities and this opportunity seemed heaven-sent!” says Ursulah.

A trained interior decorator with experience in running craft businesses, Ursulah’s heart has always been for community upliftment projects.  Her particular focus has been in the empowerment of women.  “My ultimate vision is to see the Out of Alex family extend way beyond Alexandria township.  And for initial target is to reach, and help support, 100 families by 2016.  To do this I need new outlets for the products created by the Out of Alex ladies, and would love to hear from interested parties both locally and internationally who would like to join me in achieving this vision.”

"My goal is to make the product available to a wider, international audience and in so doing create work for the many mothers and gogos supporting their families.”

Today the organisation supports 30 women from the townships of Alex, Diepsloot and the Greater Johannesburg area, their hand embroidered ranges of tableware, clothing, art pieces and other items finding an appreciative and steadily growing audience locally and internationally. The Out of Alex design signature features bright, charming depictions of township life - recent commissions include 16 framed art pieces for food chain Nandos, as well as a 2.2 m masterpiece for flagship craft retail outlet Msanzi.


Changed Lives

Success stories abound within this dynamic project, like that of Jackie Kolobe, who overcame an abusive relationship and the death of her partner to become one of the organisation's most productive and talented artists. Having used her earnings to support her extended family for many years, Jackie still managed to build up a nest egg and recently became the proud owner of her very own townhouse in Bramley.

 When Sophie Mashaba joined the group a decade ago, she was a struggling single mother with three children and no self-confidence. With encouragement and a newfound belief in her abilities, Sophie completed a course in hospitality and catering and now works as an assistant in a restaurant.

Jackie and Sophie

She uses her embroidery earnings to pay school fees and for other essentials for her family. "When I joined I was despondent, but all that has changed. I have met many new friends and learnt that I can earn by using the two hands God has given me. I now have a full-time job and recently married my first love!" says Sophie proudly.

The sewing machines hum and whirr as resident seamstress Anna Nyamukora puts the finishing touches to a beautiful tablecloth, tastefully adorned with brightly coloured motifs of bustling taxis and women carrying bundles on their heads and babies on their backs - vintage Out of Alex. A fashion design school graduate, Anna pauses for thought as she attempts to sum up what the project means to those involved. "You know, we have almost no rejects in the work we get from the ladies. That kind of pride in your work, it takes more than just money to make people feel like that."