Women recycle tea bags to make art

tea_bags_main A group of unprivileged women in Hout Bay use tea bags as a main resource to design products to support their families. (Image: YouTube)

What started out as an initiative to empower unprivileged women in Hout Bay is now a business that supports families and reaches as far as Europe.

Original T-Bag Designs was born out of a desire to help some women from Imizamo
Yethu, an informal settlement in Hout Bay, Cape Town, earn money. It is now a registered company, the crafters are employees
of this company and the sale of their crafts pays their monthly salaries. And interestingly, those products are made out of recycled tea bags.

They include gift cards, trays, coasters, bags, dolls, notebooks, and boxes. “With recycled tea bags as their canvases they are painting themselves out of poverty,” the company says of its artists.

The items are sold locally as well as in Germany, where a supporter has been been ordering from the company for years. In February, the company was approached by a French designer, who asked Original T-Bag Designs to collaborate and and remake two of its products to sell in Paris.

“The young French designer saw a bag that is made by one of T-Bag Designs’ staff, Gracious Dube,” says Helen White the operations manager. “She wanted to collaborate with Gracious to modify her bag and one of our products so that she could sell them in her shop, Ithemba Design Ethik in Paris.”

tea_bags_2_article These coasters are of the products designed by several artists who make use of tea bags as their canvas. (Image: Original T-Bag Designs)

IN THE BEGINNING

Jill Heyes, a former art teacher, moved from England to South Africa in 1996. Seeing the poverty in Imizamo Yethu, in the seaside suburb of Hout Bay, she decided to do something to help the underprivileged women.

White says Heyes started in 2000 by teaching basic craft skills to a few women. She felt that the products she came up with were not special enough for people to want to buy them. A special friend of hers made the suggestion of using a tea bag and it was decided that this would be a canvas for the ladies to express their creativity on. The tea bags were then put on cards and stationary items.

The company has been in full swing since 2003. “We grew from about seven when the company was registered in 2003 to currently having 18 staff members,” explains White, who has been working at T-Bag Designs for the past 10 years. We also have two full time managers and two part-time
office support staff.”

Heyes wanted to make sure that Original T-Bag Designs was sustainable. White explains: “We do not need to ask for or rely upon donations as we have put profits from our sales back into the company as we have grown over the years.”

tea_bags_article Russell Chitanda, production manager, and Jill Heyes, founding member, are part of the team that ensures that the average of 3 000 tea bags are painted for a week. (Image: Original T-Bag Designs)

THE WORKLOAD

Most of the artists paint 150 to 250 tea bags a week, depending on how the sales go, she says. “On average we would get through about 3 000 [tea bags] a week just for painting. We also use them for our Heart range. These are only painted one colour then a heart is cut out of the tea bag. This would bring the total up to about 4 000 a week,” White says.

Donations of used tea bags are a continuous request. People are asked to dry the bags, remove the tea leaves and send the paper to Original T-Bag Designs, where each artist creates her own designs.

For more information, go to Original T-Bag Designs.