Mungo Weaving Mill in Plettenberg Bay

WORDS Amelia Brown PHOTOS Jan Ras

The new Mungo Mill in Plett is the creative expression of the values, products and 20-year story of this family business, and a symbol of its continued growth.

In 1998 master weaver Stuart Holding was fortuitously gifted two Lancashire looms. Built in about 1890, they were the very looms he had performed his apprenticeship on in his hometown of Bentham, North Yorkshire, in the ’60s prior to setting off to discover the world. The adventure would lead him to South Africa, where he would settle and start a family.

Stuart got the looms running and began doing what he loves (and does) best: weaving. And, by celebrating an age-old craft, championing ethical production and committing to providing jobs and skills development to local people, he turned his passion into a business.

Mungo, in its very opposition to the cheap imports and textile mechanisation that could destroy it, would defy the odds and grow steadily. Seven years ago, Stuart’s children Dax and Tessa joined the business and started to streamline and strengthen each aspect of it and build the Mungo brand. In 2011 they opened a shop on the family’s property, The Old Nick Village, in Plettenberg Bay, a much-loved trading post successfully run for many years by Stuart’s wife Janet.

With a thriving online business and shops recently opened in Cape Town and Johannesburg, Mungo needed to increase its production: a larger mill went from being a dream to an imperative. It wasn’t quite as simple as erecting a building on the Old Nick property, however. There was the sizeable financial investment, red tape around developing the land, multiple stakeholders to consider in a family organisation, and questions about how to sensitively add a modern building onto a historical property.

One thing was certain: The mill would be open to the public, providing the opportunity to tell a story and share both the traditions of preindustrial and industrial weaving and the cut-make-trim process.

“People have lost touch with the way things are made,” says Dax, the driving force behind getting the mill built. “We wanted the customer to see what they’re buying being made, to make that connection.” This next chapter was set in motion when Stuart met architect and land artist Andrea Cristoforetti at an art exhibition – the person who was to take Stuart’s vision for a simple mill at the back of the Old Nick and transform it into a 900 m2 statement structure visible from the national road. Andrea’s challenge was to find the appropriate architectural language to describe a working weaving museum: a way to balance the milling function with the museum element, making it an interactive experience for the public without impeding production.

Inspiration for a walkway encased in an open-slatted wooden “skin” came from a photograph that Andrea took on a tour of Mungo’s former weaving site. A close-up of one of the looms, the image captures the simple utilitarian beauty of the multiple heddles that individually hold every thread of the warp. “I wanted visitors to walk through the ‘threads’ and, hopefully, experience some of that poetry,” Andrea explains.

Some elements weren’t negotiable, such as abundant natural light. Large windows not only provide observation galleries for visitors but also provide a bright environment for staff to work in, the opposite of traditional textile mills, which are notoriously dark, close and dirty.

“This mill represents our product,” Dax says, simply.It truly is a metaphor for Mungo. It grew as organically as the business itself: conceptualised by Stuart and Andrea two years before the first foundations were laid; evolved with the input from every family member; and finally refined and executed by Dax, a furniture designer by trade, who wove all these threads together with Poise Design.

And, like Mungo, it’s not done yet. Phase two, a 700 m2 double-storey, will one day go on the back of the building.

Take a 360-degree tour of the space here.