Working Women: #15 Karen Wentworth


Karen Wentworth, a textile artist, at her home in Grahamstown.

Karen Wentworth is a textile artist living in Grahamstown, South Africa. She works as a nurse, mostly in clinical trials, but her art occupies most of her spare time and passion.

“I’m a magpie,” says Karen. “I’m always on the lookout for good quality, bright fabric”.

She scans jumble sales and thrift stores for scraps and for beads sometimes breaks up old jewellery.

Her latest project is a Croxley’s hardback counter book which has been covered with striking patches of coloured cloth overlaid with beads and charms, a small silver elephant and woollen flowers.

Sometimes she makes functional items like this, or quilts. But her main works are wall hangings. She shows me one, about a meter square, the fabric is mostly African print in earthy browns and oranges in an almost mad pattern of colour, but tied together by suede figurines stitched on the surface and the words ‘Kuhleke Kuhleke moya wam’, from the choir hymn.

“That’s what I love about fabric, it’s a very tactile, close medium. They say we are born into cloth, it’s the second thing we feel, after our mother’s skin,” said Karen.

Other pieces could easily risk seeming lurid with colour and bead work, but in each there is always a kind of logic throughout and an aesthetic whimsicality and exuberance.

Karen begins by somewhat randomly sewing pieces of fabric but then there is a great deal of planning which goes into the assembly of the different parts.

Her favourite thing is to come home from work and sew, it’s is a kind of therapeutic and unthinking activity she can get absorbed into.

“I feel like I have to create, you know” says Karen. “If I didn’t do this, I think I would get depressed”.

However, her art hardly pays for itself let alone the bills, and as each piece is such a labour of love what she finds she can ask for it, is just disheartening.

“It’s lucky that I never tried to support myself with this, or I would starve” she says.

Karen isn’t leaving anything behind when she heads overseas, all her boxes of fabric, beads, and of course her finished pieces are going with her.

If she could, she would happy to sew and patiently assemble her work every minute of every day.

South Africa commemorates Women’s Month in August as a tribute to the more than 20 000 women who marched to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 in protest against the extension of Pass Laws to women. This August, GAP is publishing a micro-profile a day on women working in Grahamstown in 2015.

About the photographer: Jane Berg is a photojournalist working in Grahamstown and finishing her Bachelor of Journalism Degree at Rhodes University. She is the Media Officer for The Gender Action Project. You can see more of her work at and on her Facebook page.


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