Gwen Gosselin: Putting Africa’s Colourful Fabrics to Creative Use in Klein Karoo

By Tatenda Mark

Gwen Gosselin’s story began with a baby sleeping bag she was given for Christmas. She became so fond of it, she decided she had to make more of them for the South African market. But there was one major hurdle in her way, she had never touched a needle in her life! “Living out in the sticks teaches one to become resourceful,” she says.

And so, in 2010, with an old vintage sewing machine and R200 worth of fabric, Gwen started Mathilde & Co, a handmade craft business.

Life Before Mathilde &Co.: After travelling the world as an adventure tour guide, Gwen moved to a little town called Barrydale, in the Klein Karoo, South Africa. “I decided to move to the countryside for a lifestyle change but then was faced with the lack of jobs so decided to start my own business and ideally create jobs for other people too! Sounds easy, right?”

“Unlike a 9-5 job I can’t simply close the door and relax at the end of the day. I’m learning to do that now and to delegate, but initially, you breathe, eat, think, your business 24 -7.”

Even when the idea of starting Mathilde & Co came about, Gwen admits that she had no “creative bone in her body”. But with time, she taught herself how to sew, making some lovely colourful bags for herself.  Fast forward four years, and she now provides part time work for five ladies in a small community where fruit picking and house cleaning are the main options. “Together we now make colourful teething toys, which are real hit with the babies, and tourists also love them as they are easy to take home, and so African with the little SA flag ribbons on the neck.”

Financing Mathilde &Co.: “I started with R200 of my own, and slowly grew from there. I’m now in a position where I’d like to invest in more machines and employ more people so I’m starting to look into small business funding. But until I was 100% sure of myself with regular clients, I didn’t want to put myself under financial stress. I worked two jobs to be able to finance my business and had an amazingly supportive partner.”

A day at Mathilde &Co.: As they go about their business, there is always laughter in the air, as the ladies chat and their children run around.  This is the perfect environment to produce high quality cotton items that are exported all over the world.  “Our biggest achievement so far is that we have started exporting our products to the UK and our little giraffes were available at the British museum of London during the Arts and Crafts of South Africa exhibition.”

The little girls continue to play in the dirt. Looking on, Gwen mentions how Mathilde & Co.  came up with a picture-perfect girly girl dress made out of our trademark Shweshwe: a strong, durable, beautiful fabric that you can wash over and over again. “Now princesses can be princesses and still play rough and get dirty in their pretty dresses!”

Added to that is a range of cushions, bags, bunting, cards, headbands and trousers, all in Shweshwe and far from the traditional cuts and shapes. “You could say our collection is based on Classic Western lines in Modern African Colours, which we believe reflects our colourful, multicultural nation.”

Be resourceful: “Starting a business in a remote location is very tricky. The closest fabric shop is about 179 km away so you have to trust yourself and buy everything in bulk hoping any particular design is going to be a success! You learn to make a plan and work twice as hard.” Gwen strongly believes there is always a way to overcome challenges and urges others not to give up, especially if they know their idea is good and they’ve done their research. “It won’t be easy and many times you may want to give up. It doesn’t happen overnight! It took me a whole year before I even made the first sleeping bag I was happy with!”

Lessons learned: I asked Gwen about her learning experiences from running Mathilde & Co. over the years.  She admits that she wishes she had been prepared for the number of hours she would need to put in. “Unlike a 9-5 job I can’t simply close the door and relax at the end of the day. I’m learning to do that now and to delegate, but initially, you breathe, eat, think, your business 24 -7, and once the orders start rolling in you can’t let them wait, you make a plan and work over night if need be but you get those orders out.” She also mentions how she started her business when her first child was three months old, the second following shortly after. “Let me tell you I didn’t get much sleep those first few years between the three ‘babies’!”

Be sure to get in touch with Gwen to find out more about Mathilde & Co. at www.mathildeandco.com. Connect with Gwen on Facebook at Facebook.com/Mathilde & Co. or pop her an email at contact@mathildeandco.com.

Tatenda Mark is the Founder of alumnivalley.com, an online platform that supports, features and promotes entrepreneurs, ranging from small business owners, activists to artists. alumnivalley.com aims to empower, support and inspire people who follow their true passion, and believes that these are truly the minds that will change the world. For more stories and information, visit alumnivalley.com and be sure to like us on Facebook, www.facebook.com/alumnivalley. Any questions? Please feel free to email us on alumni@alumnivalley.com.