03 June 2024 | Story Leonie Bolleurs | Photo Leonie Bolleurs
Wool Products
The group of women producing wool products at the UFS Paradys Experimental Farm includes, front, from the left: Sophia Mekhoe, Sarah Lenong, Maserame Sebonyane; back: Emily Segame, Georgina Collins, and Ntabiseng Ndabeni. With the women are, from the left, next to Collins, Doretha Jacobs and Karen Venter (Head of Service Learning in Community Engagement).

An anonymous quote once said, "Sewing is not a hobby; it is a way of life." After speaking with Doretha Jacobs, Lecturer in the Department of Sustainable Food Systems and Development at the University of the Free State (UFS), it is clear that this sentiment could have been written about her.

Jacobs' life revolves around sewing. She grew up in a home where sewing was a staple, pursued formal studies in sewing, and now teaches it to third-year students in her department as well as to Occupational Therapy students, who learn to create useful products for their patients.

Commitment to skills development

Beyond her lecturing duties, Jacobs is deeply involved in service learning. Among others, she teaches embroidery, leatherwork, and needlework to learners at the Free State Residential Care Centre and Lettie Fouché School, empowering them with valuable skills.

On Mondays, she offers needlework classes to the public, contributing to the university’s third-stream income. “I enjoy seeing how excited people get about learning this new skill and how some of them use it to earn an income,” says Jacobs.

Every Tuesday for the past three years, Jacobs has been training a group of eight women at the Paradys Experimental Farm in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences to produce and sell wool products, providing them with a steady income. This initiative is part of a larger project that began several years ago, which focuses on training small-scale farmers and community members about the wool value chain, including production and marketing.

In 2020, the department received a grant from the Regional Universities Forum (RUFORUM) for their project: Building Competitiveness for Communal Farmers through Developing the Wool Value Chain in the Free State Province of South Africa. Prof Jan Swanepoel, the project leader and Associate Professor in the Department of Sustainable Agriculture, stated that the grant allowed them to uplift the community. Carien Denner Vorster, the project manager, plays a crucial role in, among others, the logistical arrangements of this project.

Jacobs' contribution to this project involves working with women to process wool and create marketable products, with a focus on felt products. Their creations include pillows, wine bags, handbags, and ottomans. They also produce tablet and laptop bags, conference bags, and pencil cases for festivals and conferences, which generate a substantial part of their income.

Impacting the community

Jacobs is passionate about product development and explains the wool processing steps with enthusiasm: washing, carding, putting it through the felt machine, and dyeing. From there, she decides whether to spin the wool for knitting or to make felt, having developed several techniques for treating it. In addition to her work with felt, Jacobs also offers public classes on making felt pieces.

“The most enjoyable part for me in working with the women is seeing them grow and helping to put food on their table. I love all of them,” she says, expressing her dream to see the project expand and helping even more people.

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