On a snowy Christmas Eve in Oslo, a Norwegian child gazes up in wonder at a beaded wire angel sparkling in candlelight. Somehow, that tiny twirling wire figurine with its glinting wings captures the full spirit of the season.
The angel comes from the tiny railway siding of Vondeling in the Great Karoo, where 29 families remain in residence amongst the tumbledown station buildings 40km from Willowmore. The magnificent Swartberg mountain range looms over their lives.
In a prefab structure that used to be a church, a dozen people gather every day to make more angels, because the Christmas markets of Norway, Switzerland and France simply cannot get enough of them.
The simple room is full of stylised cherubs and seraphs. They twist in the breeze, some robed in ostrich feathers, others sparkling with sequinned wings, their beaded halos catching the light. There are angels in packets, hanging from beams, draped over sequins and beads on tables.
Each person works on something different. One is knitting with copper wire, another with steel. A few are threading beads onto a wire. Some are winding wire around frames. Wings are being knitted, and dresses. Tiny wing-like ostrich feathers fragments are being assembled, along with longer ones for feathery angel dresses.
The crafters are a cheerful lot, because these winged wire beings have transformed their lives. Angels have helped them clothe and educate their children better, to improve the food on their tables, to support their families in lean times.
Vondeling became the Angel Factory of the Karoo thanks to two real life angels. Gardi Oosthuizen and Hannelie Hazelmann of Craft Partners in Port Elizabeth trained 13 women and two men. The new enterprise was dubbed Vondeling Optel Craft in 2006.
Siena Klaassen explains: “It started a bit like an optel kind, a picked up child, a foundling. Hanneli and Gardi showed us first to start off with things that were lying around, old tins, bits of wood. Then they taught us to crochet with wire.”
Violet Mini was one of the first angelmakers.
“Ooh, my husband is so proud of me. Hy is in sy skik.”
Sisters Levona and Siena Klaassen are also some of original people to have started here nearly seven years ago. They had been scratching out a living doing housework, making jam and leatherwork in the Western Cape when they heard there were jobs available in their home town. They returned immediately, and have been happy here ever since. Even their father, Oom Jan, has a job there. No one can crochet with thin wire like he can.
Vondeling Optel Craft is a completely viable business that stands on its own two feet (or flies on its own two wings). The angelmakers conduct their financial affairs according to a rigorous formula that pays them a decent wage, and sets aside enough for materials, other costs and savings. Gardi helped them with this, they say. Gardi also calls them up if she comes across deals or orders.
“Sy roep ons met aangename verrassings. She calls us with pleasant surprises,” says Siena, smiling.
“This is like a dream for us. Gardi and Hannelie have given us a way to work hard and to make our dreams come true.”
Most of the angels are exported, but you can often find some for sale at Vondeling itself, or in nearby Willowmore’s tourism offices (044 023 1702).
To contact the angelmakers, call 044 923 1100 or 083 988 2584.
- The angels of Vondeling also feature in Karoo Keepsakes II – The Journeys Continue. The recently-published book is the perfect gift for someone with any link to the Karoo.