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Travel to Dar Es Salaam


Handmade From Tanzania Oyster Bay, Dar Es Salaam

1 February 2015

Words: Andrew Birbeck / Image: Angelique Culvin

Helen Espey’s most vivid memory of first visiting Tanzania in 1993, when her architect husband, John, was stationed in Dar es Salaam on a six-month contract, was “sitting on the shores of Oyster Bay as a dhow drifted by silhouetted against the sparkling Indian ocean”. In hindsight it was a prophetic moment. The couple settled in the city’s Oyster Bay neighbourhood, where Helen eventually started her business in 2000. 

With a young family and new home she found herself on the look-out for furniture. Then, as today, sustainability was at the forefront of her thinking. “I had clear ideas about what I wanted, yet bizarrely could source no sustainable timber,” she says. “I’d seen old ngalawas (canoes) for sale and decided to buy one to see what I could do with it.” 

From a set of shelves hewn from that first boat hull, and subsequently by word-of-mouth, Handmade From Tanzania evolved. After concentrating on unique one-off pieces, such as rustic sofas, beds and tables, often created from salvaged dhows such as the one seen many years before, Helen expanded into exquisite hand-woven cotton products and soft-furnishings and, more recently, fashion. 

Her focus centres on employing local people, from highly skilled weavers to her dedicated team of carpenters. “We use traditional methods, 100 per cent Tanzanian organically-grown cotton yarn and our dyes are all environmentally friendly,” she says. “One of our carpenters even had to make special 2.5 metre looms on-site to produce double-width fabric for our bed linen.” When asked what brings visitors to her workshop and studio, Helen replies, “We’re really one big family working together and you won’t find anything quite like it, or what we produce, anywhere else.”