An Article in the Washington Post from June 21, 1988 that explained the project and some of the tensions and problems that occurred.

By Donald P. Baker and Sandra R. Gregg

STUART, VA., JUNE 20, 1988 -- Farm women lugging groceries paused to wave and factory workers in dusty pickup trucks gave farewell honks as eight African women, swaying and singing their native melodies, made their final walk today up the hill from their weaving shop to the dormitory-like brick house they shared the last two years.

"The Swazi-ladies," as they are called, were going home, having completed what painter Ronald Renmark says may be the largest weaving project in history. It was Renmark who drew the sketches from which the weavers did their work.

Since their arrival in February 1986, up to a dozen talented weavers from Swaziland, a tiny kingdom tucked between South Africa and Mozambique, wove 22 huge tapestries -- 8 1/2 by 34 feet -- all for display on the walls of the newly refurbished airport terminal in Tampa, Fla. The women came to America because a clause in the contract with the Hillsborough County (Tampa) Airport Authority said the work had to be done domestically; and they came here because Renmark was so intrigued by their work.

Along the way, the women also spun their way into the fabric of Patrick County -- previously known for producing stock-car drivers, country fiddlers and politicians (both Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles and Attorney General Mary Sue Terry are natives) -- and into the hearts of its residents.

"We have loved you," Carole Renmark told them at a farewell party on the lawn of her farmhouse the other night. "You all made our town so interesting for two years, and we thank you for all you have given us."

"This has not just been for us," replied Juliet Mavimbela, at 40 the oldest of the weavers. "It has also been for relatives back home."

The weavers have been regulars at the post office in this town of 1,131 near the North Carolina border, lining up to mail gifts, especially for their children, and money for the relatives who cared for the children during their mothers' long absence.

In a community whose biggest monument is to "our Confederate dead," and where race relations are more separate than equal, the Swazi-ladies have bridged the color barriers.

"These women are different, they are artists," says Patrick County Manager Barnie Day. "There's something exotic about them -- the difference in language and customs. I think this community was very proud to have them here."

Some townsfolk concede they were a bit surprised at their own hospitality, which culminated in tearful hugs and gift exchanges at the farewell party.

Norma Siegel, an English tutor, conducted weekly classes at the town library, where the women practiced their English by filling out forms and reading stories about Virginia and American history. Elizabeth Courtney, a former librarian in Prince George's County who now lives at nearby Woolwine, served as a tutor to Joyce Mathabela, who got her first name from a British nurse at the hospital where she was born. (Because the locals have not mastered Siswati as well as the Swazis have English, the women are all known here by their first names.)

"Joyce is a very special lady," said Courtney, who is especially proud that Mathabela recently passed the test to get a Virginia driver's license.

Few of the weavers had ever been more than 50 miles from their native village. And if the hills of Patrick County, population 17,250, may have reminded them of home, Mathabela says the Virginia winters did not. She was thrilled the first time she saw snow -- "cotton wool flying" -- but by the second winter, "I was tired of it."

The Swazi-ladies were selected for the project by Renmark and industrial designer Bob Maxwell from nearly a dozen tapestry studios around the world that submitted samples.

"Theirs flowed beautifully, and they had such a feel for light and shading," says Renmark.

Back home, the women work for Swaziland Tapestries Ltd., a company owned by a German family, for which they created wall hangings and rugs bearing interpretations of ancient drawings found in caves in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Their work was sold throughout Europe.

The original agreement, signed in December 1985, called for 18 tapestries (nine pairs) at a cost of $392,000. In July 1987, four more tapestries were ordered, for an additional $76,000. Maxwell says the project was too massive for any American weaver or group of weavers.

Renmark, 49, whose work is displayed primarily in industrial and commercial settings (including a Washington area Lord & Taylor) had settled here 13 years ago, moving from Fort Lauderdale. After being unable to find a suitable building elsewhere, he persuaded the owner of a craft shop here to turn over her building to him.

The prospects of artistic cross-pollination were what excited Renmark about the Swazi weavers. For the weavers, the appeal was more practical.

"The main thing I like {in America} is money. It is much bigger than at home," said Pouline Cininoza. At $580 per month, plus food and housing, the women would not get rich by U.S. standards, but it was a tempting offer for someone who earned less than $200 a month in Swaziland.

"We came for our children," said 27-year-old Cininoza.

By saving 2,000 emalangeni (roughly $4,000), Cininoza said she will be able to build a four-room cinder-brick home for herself and her two small sons back in Swaziland. Most of the women, who range in age from 23 to 40, are single mothers who, like Cininoza, said they want to send their children to good schools and build homes of their own.

The women gained recognition far beyond the boundaries of Patrick County, performing native songs and dances for local church groups, and traveling as far as the Jacob's Pillow dance festival in Massachusetts. They have displayed their tapestries in Buffalo and Cincinnati.

But it is their weaving that will be remembered most.

As word of the project spread through the area, visitors -- enough names to fill 87 pages of a register -- flocked to the roadside building to watch the mammoth work-in-progress. The weavers worked on a scaffold suspended in front of an 11-by-36-foot loom built by Michael Reck, whose parents Albert and Maria Reck own Swaziland Tapestries.

Michael Reck's other major contribution to the project was mixing the dyes that transformed the 22,000 yards of woven cotton into hundreds of variations of the airport's basic colors -- scarlet, teal and brown.

Peering through warps (vertical threads spaced six inches apart) in the loom, the weavers copied from cartoons, which are full-sized paintings drawn by Renmark, translating 11 pairs of designs into 22 sea-green and ocean-blue scenes of egrets in a tidal marsh, sponge boats, manatees, Spanish moss and live oaks.

Their final tapestry, like the other designs, depicts a scene residents of a landlocked country could only imagine: a pelican swooping down on a fish in the Gulf of Mexico.

The women say proudly that theirs is more than a job; they are artists, each with her own gift.

"One is no better than another," said Thembie Zwane, 29.

Sellinah Dlamini has a special knack for winding together the right strands to get the perfect blending of colors, Renmark said. And Mathabela, the most patient, unravels and reweaves sections that do not meet the group's approval.

They worked quickly, guiding a knot of yarn between the vertical strands with one hand, pulling it through with the other, then gently tapping it in place, their fingers darting in and out in cadence, as if they were playing a giant, mute harp.

Occasionally, they swapped stories in Siswati, or sang along to music -- Lionel Richie, Peter Tosh, Crystal Gayle -- from a radio.

To be sure, there were times when some rather universal problems intruded. On June 7, Sebenzile (Sebe) Simelane Hairston gave birth to twins, Paul Patrick and Pauline Virginia, named for the county and state in which they were born. But the father, a local man, has had trouble with the law, and she plans to live with his parents until it is resolved.

There was also a contract dispute between the Recks and the Tampa airport authority. At one point, the Swazi ambassador stepped in, saying completion of the project was very important to his country. On Monday, an agreement was worked out that resulted in the women getting their final paychecks, allowing them to make plans for their long-awaited return to Swaziland.

Richard Rogers, a local attorney who has been handling the weavers' financial affairs, said the women, who once went four months without being paid, were each paid about $2,000 in cash on Monday.

Before the trouble, the airport had planned a celebration, perhaps including the weavers. Now, Bob Maxwell says, that won't happen, though he insists he isn't discouraged by the problems. "We run into a lot of lousy contractors, but we don't quit building," Maxwell says. "The end results are wonderful."

Juliet Mavimbela, exhibiting the increased sophistication the women picked up during their stay, predicted that most of the weavers will not work for the Recks upon their return. "I know I won't," she says.

Indeed, the women say they have jointly decided to form their own company.

That's where Mathabela's driver's license comes in.

"We're going to buy a van, and I'm going to drive everyone to and from the shop," she says.

"We're going to call our company Bulcanti Mswait, in Siswati, which in English means Swazi Awake," says Mathabela. "Isn't that good?"