There is an angel factory in the Karoo, and these are some of the angelmakers. From left to right, Trudi Hobanie, Charlene Daniels, Janine Hobanie, Valenta Martin, her mother Violet Martin and Veronica Olyn. Photo: Chris Marais
There is an angel factory in the Karoo, and these are some of the angelmakers. From left to right, Trudi Hobanie, Charlene Daniels, Janine Hobanie, Valenta Martin, her mother Violet Martin and Veronica Olyn. Photo: Chris Marais

Picture, if you will, a Christmas angel factory. Do you imagine fluffy clouds, elves, sparkly tinsel? People dressed in pointy hats with tinkling bells?

You could not be more wrong.

The Karoo Angel Factory is, in fact, split across two remote and dusty settlements in the Eastern Cape. The first is in a tiny old church in Vondeling, a blip of a settlement around a ruined railway station, midway between Willowmore and De Rust. The other unlikely angelic production line is in a classroom of the Bronville Primary School in Rietbron.

Every year the angelmakers, all 16 of them, fashion around 20 000 Karoo angels from wire, ostrich feathers, hand-felted Merino wool, sequins and beads, and they are despatched to faraway places like Norway, Sweden, Canada, the USA, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and France.

A Dream that Flew

How in heaven did this all start?

Rewind to 2006, when Cacadu District Municipality (now Sarah Baartman District Municipality) launched an upliftment initiative aimed at handcraft skills development, business creation and the sourcing of appropriate markets. In short, one of those breathless projects that generally waste money, dash dreams and create herds of white elephants.

But this one was different. The municipality entrusted the mentorship to two dedicated women in Port Elizabeth: Hannelie Herselman and Gardi Oosthuizen of Craft Partners.

Ronel Skaarnek, angelmaker in chief with the Rietbron group. Photo: Chris Marais
Ronel Skaarnek, angelmaker in chief with the Rietbron group. Photo: Chris Marais

The District Municipality chose Vondeling for the initiative, a hamlet of some 29 families (including neighbouring farms) with a school and church, no electricity or shops, and a single solar-powered payphone.

Income mostly came from social grants or seasonal piecework on farms.

The story about how it all started is still very much alive in the village. Siena Klaassen (now deceased) was one of the first to be involved. Back in 2008, she told us: “This craft business started a bit like an optel kind, a picked up child, a vondeling (foundling). Hannelie and Gardi showed us first to start off with things that were lying around us – old tins, glass shards, bits of agave wood. That’s why we called our project Vondeling Optel Craft.”

Gardi adds: “We then built on their existing knowledge of crochet and knitting, using thin wire and beautifully coloured beads, sequins and wool.”

An Angel named Justine

One of the items they produced was an angel with beaded feet peeking out of the wire-crocheted robe. The Vondeling group named it Justine, after one of the young leaders in their team.

Then came an unlikely series of minor miracles that linked this speck on the map to Oslo in Norway.

Feathered Karoo angels began to adorn Nordic conifers, gleaming and delicate in candlelight. They spread to Germany and France, and by 2015, the angel team in Vondeling was struggling to keep up with the orders.

An angel flying among Karoo thorns at Vondeling. Photo: Chris Marais
An angel flying among Karoo thorns at Vondeling. Photo: Chris Marais

Rewind again to 2009. The District Municipality had appointed Gardi and Hannelie to repeat Vondeling’s success in another remote community – Rietbron, between Willowmore and Beaufort West.

There, the two taught a group of women to crochet and knit hearts, delicate snowflakes, wire trees and small jewellery items using fine wire, welding skills and spray paint. The end-products were beautiful, delicate and quirky. They sold fairly well locally and overseas, but there was less demand for their ranges than for Vondeling’s. The demand for angels, meanwhile, was absolutely soaring.

Angels Take Flight

By 2015, it seemed only natural to deploy the deft hands at Rietbron Handcrafts to help fill the demand.

Since then the two groups have worked together under the Karoo Angels label, naming themselves as “The Angel Factory in the Karoo”.

Because of ever-increasing sales it was necessary to set up a vehicle that could handle exports in a compliant way, and Kjersti formed Karoo Angels (Pty) Ltd in 2013. By then also all state funding support had stopped, and the craft activities in both Vondeling and Rietbron were and remain dependent on orders to survive.

Some of Rietbron angelmakers in their ‘office’ at Bronville Primary School. Back from left to right: Brenda Rex, Anna Solomon and Ronel Skaarnek. In front, Sara Steenkamp, Juliana Steenkamp with her baby Jaylene, and Elsie Theron. Photo: Chris Marais
Some of Rietbron angelmakers in their ‘office’ at Bronville Primary School. Back from left to right: Brenda Rex, Anna Solomon and Ronel Skaarnek. In front, Sara Steenkamp, Juliana Steenkamp with her baby Jaylene, and Elsie Theron. Photo: Chris Marais

What started with one angel in 2006 is now a range of more than 75, each with its own personality, features and style, named after the angelmakers and family members.

There’s a Jaylene, an Amorey, a Charlene, an Anna, an Elsie, Violet, Levona, Nelly, Estalien, Aunt Ellen, Sara, and a Lisa, among many others.

Jane Zaayman says: “Our feather suppliers, Klein Karoo International in Oudtshoorn, have been incredibly helpful – even though we are among their smaller clients. The angel-makers are still talking about their visit to the feather workers and an ostrich farm two years ago!”

Angels, Creativity and Miracles

The two craft groups manage production themselves. “Their professionalism and commitment is critical,” says Kjersti.

“Making these angels is our career, and that is why we do not compromise on quality,” adds Ronel Skaarnek of Rietbron.

Being angelmakers has brought many blessings to the women of Vondeling Optel Craft and Rietbron Handcrafts, above and beyond the income they bring in.

In 2018, the Karoo Angels were represented for the first time at the huge trade show SARCDA in Johannesburg, and South African demand is shooting up.

Another development in the past year has been a collaboration with the Nelson Mandela University’s Department of Life Sciences, which is working closely with the crafters to promote healthy lifestyles in the villages.

The angels have also allowed a kind of creative expression that might not have been possible before.

Quite often the Vondeling Optel Crafters work from home (many of their homes are old railway houses. Here are Trudi Hobanie, Veronica Olyn, Charlene Daniels and Janine Hobanie. Photo: Chris Marais
Quite often the Vondeling Optel Crafters work from home (many of their homes are old railway houses. Here are Trudi Hobanie, Veronica Olyn, Charlene Daniels and Janine Hobanie. Photo: Chris Marais

“In another world, Violet Martin would have been a recognised artist, I am convinced,” remarks Kjersti.

Says Violet: “Because of the angels, we receive visitors from across the country and overseas. My husband is proud of us. Our whole community respects us. These angels have given life to my dreams.”

Kjersti of Oslo adds: “It is indeed a miracle that thousands of handmade angels every year fly from the Karoo plains to countries far away. This Christmas again, people in every corner of the world will open a small gift and discover a skilfully handmade angelic creation, and on the label they will read the words: There is an angel factory in the Karoo…”