Julia Shuttleworth & her husband, Rob, own a South African-based company called Shuttleworth Weaving that makes beautiful rugs out of natural fibers! Her rugs look so beautiful, she runs her business off the grid, & her business philosophy is so good, so I knew I had to find out more about what she does.
1. Tell us a little bit about what you do.
My husband, Rob and I have a small handweaving business that we took over from his parents five years ago. We live and work off the grid, his parents started weaving and spinning in the evenings by candlelight about 40 years ago and it slowly grew into a business, first supplying our local tourist trade but now exporting worldwide. We employ 12 rural Zulu women who do all the spinning and weaving by hand. We mostly work with mohair and wool. I have the best job as I get to dye all the yarns into beautiful colours.
2. How did you end up starting your rug business? Was there a specific moment that you decided to do this?
My husband had been helping his parents with the business his whole life. When we had had some other work experience and were married, we chose to join and take over the business from his parents. I chose to do it as I could see the potential of the business to do well and I thought it looked easier and more fun than the teaching job I was doing at the time!
3. What’s your philosophy behind the way you run your business?
We live consciously and authentically and look after the people and environment around us as best we can, in order to provide unique and beautiful rugs.
4. What is your favorite part about having your business?
My favorite parts about our business are that I get to be with my husband all day, and I can pop home to see my baby at any time. I love that we spend most of our time out of doors and make beautiful products from (mostly) natural materials.
5. Can you give us a list of the steps involved in weaving a rug & explain that process a little more? Do you raise the goats the mohair comes from?
We buy the mohair (which comes from Angora goats). It is too wet here for the goats to do well (we live in a mistbelt forest) – they are mostly farmed in the Eastern Cape part of South Africa. The ladies who work here take handfuls of the raw yarn and spin it by hand on old wooden kick wheels. They then wind the spun yarn into hanks where I take it to the dye house and dye it in large pots into a myriad of different colours. We heat the water in a donkey boiler, using wood off-cuts from a nearby sawmill and then get it to the correct temperature using gas. We make sure that all of the dye is absorbed into the yarn so there is no dye that is left in the water. The hanks are then sun-dried and ready to be woven when the loom is set up. Getting the loom ready is often the longest part of the process, especially on our 9 meter (29 foot) wide loom! 1 – 8 people will then sit at the loom, winding the yarn onto the shuttles and changing the sheds using foot peddles. When the rug is woven, it is taken off the loom and left to settle into its final size. Each warp thread is then tied off by hand and stitched back into the rug. The rug is then measured, weighed and parcelled up to go to its final destination. The heaviest rug we made weighed 160kgs (350 lbs)!
6. What have you found to be the best way to market your business?
We don’t do much marketing for our business other than our local tourism branch – The Midlands Meander and our, rather outdated, website!
7. What is your favorite type of rug to make & why?
My favorite type of rugs to make are the mohair rugs as the mohair is lustrous and takes the dye colours beautifully. I enjoy making one-off rugs for our shop as that is usually more fun and creative than sticking to a single colour or design that has been ordered.
8. What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started?
There is so much that we have learnt about our business and ourselves that its hard to choose one specific thing. Generally I think I wish that I’d had the confidence to grow our client base sooner than we have done, but all the same the timing seems to be right.
9. What’s the best investment you’ve made in yourself or your business?
The best investments I have made in myself are joining the 52WM course [writer Benjamin Hardy’s 52 Weeks of Momentum course] and getting myself a horse to ride. The best business investments are our wonderful staff and also a small commercial property that we managed to buy so that we are paying off a building rather than paying rent for our retail shop.
10. On your website, it says your company is located in the forests of the KwaZulu-Natal midlands in South Africa. It sounds like a beautiful place. What is it like, & what are some of your favorite things about it? Does the place influence your approach to making your products?
Oh yes! We live in a very beautiful place. Autumn and winter are the best as the days are clear and sunny. We occasionally even get snow, but it’s always sunny again after a day or two. We are surrounded by forest, grasslands, birds and wildlife as well as our horses who wander around grazing. We spend most of our time out of doors. The colours of the environment certainly influence our rugs – the sunrises and sunsets, the lichen on the trees, the grasses and leaves and the surrounding, ever-changing farmlands.
11. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice I ever received is to take regular cold showers!!
12. When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? Does any aspect of it relate to what you do now?
When I was a child I knew that I wanted to live in or near a forest and be outdoors, so in a way it does relate to what I do now. I didn’t ever think I’d have a business though!
13. Where do you get inspiration & ideas for new rug designs?
Inspiration for new rugs usually springs from necessity! When we need to come up with a new weave or design it requires many hours of sitting at a loom experimenting and changing things, combining various colours.
14. What has been your biggest challenge or setback, & how did you handle it? How did it help your business more better?
Ultimately the biggest challenge is with ourselves and our mindset around everything we do. We are lucky in that we work well together and can usually find a way to proceed when we disagree. Overcoming our set ideas and beliefs is challenging and difficult at times, but ultimately rewarding, as we become more confident in our decisions and take bigger risks. Handling a staff member who developed a psychiatric disorder was an incredibly challenging ordeal. Living in a third world country country certainly comes with its own set of challenges as well as living and running a business off the grid.
15. What’s something about carpet-making that you wish they knew?
Well… I guess I just would like people to know how much love and process goes into making each of our (and any handmade) rugs, from collecting firewood to the beautiful singing as the ladies spin and weave. The repetitive motion of the actual weaving and spinning can be quite therapeutic.
I also love the way the word ‘woven/weave’ is used so often in literature and becomes metaphor for the way life works!
16. Why do you do what you do? What drives you to be successful/keeps you interested in what you do?
I really enjoy what I do as there are always interesting challenges to overcome which makes it rewarding and never boring. I love working with my Rob (my husband) and feel grateful for that we are able to why we do together. My dye ‘office’ is basically in a forest so I feel very lucky!
17. What’s your favorite quote, & how does it relate to or inspire you & your approach to your business?
I enjoy most quotes as they usually all hold some truth. I can’t think of any particular one at the moment except perhaps ‘you don’t have to believe everything you think’. I have certainly learnt that since I joined the weaving as we have achieved some things that I thought were beyond possible!
18. What are some of your biggest goals for the year ahead?
Our biggest goal for the rest of this year is to complete a big rug order (on time) to be sent to the States and to try and get in a few days of holiday before December! Also to complete paying off a loan.
19. What are some of your longer-term goals?
Our longer-term goals are to get the weaving running more independently from us so that we can build ourselves a much needed house. We will build it ourselves, by hand, so will need time to do it. Once we have done that we hope to travel and see more of this wonderful continent.
You can find out more about Julia & Shuttleworth Weaving here: