Kenya Crafts: The Story of Spinners Web

Despite the recent proliferation of malls and craft fairs around Nairobi, my Christmas shopping last month began how it usually does: browsing the miscellany of products on display at Spinners Web. From hand-woven carpets and wall hangings, to handcrafted sculptures, jewellery and furniture – they seem to have it all. There are 80,000 items on their shelves, so I blazed through my Christmas list. While I was there, I bumped into the shop’s founder, Jacqueline Resley, and we had a brief chat about their recent move from Peponi Road. I vowed to return in January to hear more of the Spinners Web backstory, so last week I did just that.

If you haven’t visited their new shop yet, its along Kitisuru Road, about 2.5 km from their old location. When I returned last weekend, I had intended to meet Jacqui for lunch at the shop’s café, but an Iranian film crew had taken over the whole courtyard. We were quickly shooed away as our chat disrupted the lead actor’s monologue, so we opted to finish off our paninis in Jacqui’s office. Here we were joined by her daughter, Inga, who helps run Spinners, and Tim Challen, who recently opened the café – called Pharley’s.

Jacqui first arrived in Kenya in 1971, after hitchhiking through the likes of Spain, Morocco and Egypt. Captivated by the people, the weather and the wildlife, she decided to stay, and pursued her dream of starting a textile and pottery business. In the 1960s and 70s, she explained, Peace Corps volunteers did a bit of weaving in Kenya, but at that time fabrics had to be imported.

So, with her experience as a University of Kansas Fine Arts graduate, she established Kenya Weaverbird – involved initially in the production of high quality furnishing fabrics and carpets for East African Hotels. Over the years, they branched out to the production of a wider range of carpets, wall hangings and other home accessories, and they also started making pottery in 1992. The textile items were (and still are) made from hand-spun Kenyan wool, and are dyed over fuel efficient wood burning jikos.

Jacqui envisioned the concept of Spinners Web in 1985, with two of her friends. It was initially called Spin and Weave, but a competitor stole the name. Jacqui likened these tricky early years to getting out of a spider’s web, from which the name Spinners Web was born.

Over the next few years, the shop moved from Longonot Place by the Norfolk Hotel, to Viking House in Westlands. At this point, they were spinning two tonnes by hand every month, but these efforts weren’t generating enough revenue. Undeterred, Jacqui decided to take over Spinners Web completely, so she bought the rest of the shares from her partners and moved the shop to Peponi Road.

Here the shop flourished, eventually establishing links with over 400 suppliers. What was first conceived as a showplace for Kenya’s spinners and weavers, evolved into a one-stop shop for a diversity of handcrafted products. Today, Spinners Web supports workshops across Africa – although the products on sale are largely crafted by skilled Kenyan artisans.

Last year, Jacqui and Inga decided to give Spinners Web a permanent home, at its current location along Kitisuru Road. It’s a striking house, designed by Jacqui’s former husband, and renowned architect, Karl Henrik Nøstvik. In 1965, Karl was commissioned by Jomo Kenyatta to design Kenya’s first government building – the Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC).

To accommodate all the thousands of products, the shop extends beyond the house in corridors fronted by glass and framed by metal. These surround a central courtyard, with a small garden and fountain, and scattered tables and chairs. The café – Pharley’s – is tucked into a corner of the courtyard, and for now serves coffees, other varieties of drinks, pastries, excellent paninis and samosas.

But the owner, Tim, has grand plans for Pharley’s. He’s bringing in a pizza oven from Italy, and introducing craft beers on tap from Big Five Breweries. Tim has 25 years of experience in the hospitality business, including a stint as the Executive Chef at the Tamarind Restaurant in Mombasa. He’s already planning a tea tasting event at Pharley’s on 14 February, and aims to host regular wine tasting evenings. There was also talk of hosting a farmers’ market at weekends, with local, organic produce.

Jacqui and Inga also outlined their 2018 plans for Spinners Web – including the development of a community centre, a gallery, a nature walk, an outdoor gym, and an indigenous tree nursery. After lunch we walked round the compound, and I saw that there was plenty of space for these additions at the bottom of the sloping garden. There’s space, too, for a much larger car park, which is also in the pipeline.

They’re hoping to have all this complete by the end of the year, and will organise a grand launch to mark the occasion. Until then, the shop will be open as usual, showcasing some of the continent’s finest handcrafted products.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation