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Marguerite Stephens
Marguerite Stephens annotating a hand-drawn cartoon of one of William Kentridge's Puppet Drawings in preparation for the weaving of a tapestry. Photo by John Hodgkiss, courtesy of William Kentridge Studio.

Stephens Tapestry Studio

Opened in 1963 as a branch of a carpet and curtain business in Swaziland, the Stephens Tapestry Studio moved in 1965 to Diepsloot, a suburb of Johannesburg in South Africa, where it established itself as an independent workshop focused on raising awareness of weaving as an art. The studio has collaborated with a wide array of artists from South Africa and Europe—including Gillian Ayres, Gerard Sekoto, Eduardo Villa, and Tito Zongu—allowing them to experiment with and realize works in the tapestry medium. Included in many public collections throughout the world, the tapestries produced by the studio have also been exhibited at numerous museums and galleries—most notably at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg since 1970.

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Stephens and her team of weavers create tapestries that range from wall-sized to monumental. Production begins as a cottage industry in Swaziland, where mohair shorn from goats and purchased in bulk is carded and spun, a process requiring at least ten to fifteen women for each tapestry. Four dyers then achieve a variety of subtle tones working from the three primary colors. The weft is dyed in vats over a wood fire and hung to dry in the sun. The rest of the process takes place at the Diepsloot studio, where Stephens currently employs thirteen women as weavers. Stephens herself participates in the crucial stage of translating the artist’s work by hand into a large-scale cartoon. The cartoon is a full-sized map for the weavers to follow with exacting detail, and it includes annotations specifying colors as well as outlining the patterns, forms, and characteristics that comprise the artwork’s imagery. Using the French Gobelin high-warp technique, the weavers work on vertical looms, and the weft is woven in a horizontal motion. The cartoon is placed behind the loom face as a guide to the weavers as they create the tapestry from the bottom up.

Stephens recognizes that the artist involved in the collaboration can be one whose sensibilities exclusively resonate with the decorative aspect of tapestry, or one whose work is also considered political or controversial. While the art of tapestry is based in precision, it also possesses plasticity that can capture many different artistic expressions and can allow for successful collaborations such as the series produced with William Kentridge. Since 2000 Stephens and the weavers in the studio have created nearly a hundred tapestries from the artist’s series of seventeen Puppet Drawings. For Stephens, the combination of a strong artistic vision and meticulous execution is what produces a successful tapestry, and it can be judged only when the tapestry is released from the loom and hung for the first time, becoming a work of art in its own right that possesses reverberations of the touch of all who participated in the process of its making.

The Stephens Tapestry Studio

Head Weavers: Margaret Zulu, June Xaba
Weavers: Zanele Zulu, Virginia Mzimba, Treasure Zulu, Phuti Zulu, Rhoda Tibha, Daphne Lukhele, Mavis Manzini, Tracy Ncube, Philele Shongwe, Gladis Mzimba
Spinners: Christine Vilakazi, Ida Shongwe, Sipewe Mhonza, Dudu Dlamini
Dyers: Sylvia Mantanga, Hlobsile Fakude, Dunsile Shongwe, Selvia Dlamini