Knitting in Joburg: Arthur Bales Turns 120

by | Aug 2, 2022 | Arts and Culture, Johannesburg, Markets/Shopping | 26 comments

More than a year ago, I blogged about a yarn shop in Edenvale and planned to start a longer series about knitting in Joburg. Somehow I never got around to expanding that series until now, but I’m glad I procrastinated: My favorite yarn and fabric shop, Arthur Bales, is turning 120 years old in August and it’s having a huge sale for the entire month. So I’ve picked the best time to finally blog about this wonderful store.

The street outside Arthur Bales
Arthur Bales is in a lovely retail strip below a mid-century apartment block on 4th Avenue in Linden. There is always an interesting selection of street vendors outside selling books, baskets, and other browse-worthy items.
Busy salesperson at Arthur Bales
I think this saleslady was stepping out for a breath of fresh air. Yesterday (August 1st) was the first day of the sale and the shop was insanely busy.

The History of Arthur Bales

I’ve been buying yarn at Arthur Bales since I started knitting in 2020, and I knew the shop had been around for a long time. But I didn’t know the full history until yesterday, when I showed up for the sale and picked up a copy of the Bales Bulletin near the entrance. The Bales Bulletin is the most delightful and informative newsletter I’ve come across in a very long time — I read it from cover to cover.

The Bales Bulletin
The Bales Bulletin.

The newsletter includes an in-depth history of the Bales brand, peppered with old photos, vintage advertisements, anecdotes on the history of knitting and sewing, and fascinating little details about what shopping was like in Joburg during the city’s early years. There is even a section about the rise of knitting and other handicrafts during the pandemic, and the role Arthur Bales played as an essential service provider during lockdown.

Knitting in wartime
I love the page about knitting in wartime, especially the factoid about knitting espionage.
Fashion timeline in the Bales Bulletin
My other favorite page in the Bulletin.

I don’t have space to recount the whole history of the store here, but in brief: The first Arthur Bales (the name itself derives from the phrase “bales of cloth”) immigrated to South Africa from Norwich, England — the epicenter of Europe’s wool trade — in the 1890s, and initially worked as a traveling photographer. Bales opened a drapery store in Braamfontein in 1902, just a few years after Johannesburg was founded, and the shop eventually expanded into a large department store selling clothes, furniture, games, and toys, in addition to cloth. The business eventually passed to Arthur Bales’ widow, son (Arthur Jr.), and then grandson (Arthur III), who opened the Linden location of the store in 1969.

The Braamfontein store closed in the 1990s, and the Linden store — which specializes in yarn, fabric, and haberdashery — is now run by a 4th generation of Bales. Even today the Linden shop has a pleasant, old-timey feel to it.

Vintage window display
A fun vintage window display outside the current Bales shop.
Inside Arthur Bales during the sale
The interior of the store as it looked during yesterday’s sale.
Old-timey Bales sign
Old-timey signage. (I shot most of these photos last summer, on a normal day when the shop wasn’t so full of sale customers.)
Fabric counter
The fabric counter.
Yarns for sale
There is so much yarn to choose from. It can be quite overwhelming, especially for beginner knitters, but there are always people around to help. You can also buy knitting needles and other accessories.
Yarn for sale
More yarn.
Design knitting consultant
This is Natalia Valentin, an Arthur Bales consultant who works part-time designing samples and helping customers with their knitting. She is in her 90s and sharp as a tack.
Fabric corner
A beautiful fabric corner in the shop.

The Arthur Bales Sale

Arthur Bales has a couple of big, end-of-season sales each year, but the current 120th-anniversary sale is a special one. It’s running for the whole month, rather than a couple of days, and there are different specials happening each week of the month. This week is the big opening, with all of the store’s yarns and fabrics reduced in various increments. I think most of the yarn I bought yesterday was 20-30% off.

Yarn I bought
Yesterday’s haul, which I plan on using to make multiple hats and scarves. This is a lot of yarn and it cost me R440 (about $26).

Next week is “Penny Week”, with sale items priced in pennies and shillings to celebrate the olden times. Follow Arthur Bales on Instagram for information on the following two weeks’ sales.

I can’t wait to get started on my new knitting projects. Care to join me? If so, get over to that sale ASAP.

Arthur Bales is at 62 4th Avenue, Linden.

26 Comments

  1. Maureen

    The lady’s name is Natalia Valentin and she is in her 90s. An absolute gem and so helpful

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Ah, thank you! I will update the post accordingly.

      Reply
  2. Margaret Urban

    I started working in Braamfontein in 1992. Yes, in the first couple of years I was there there was a large two storey corner shop that I remember selling fabric and also carpets, which was probably Arthur Bales; I was sorry to see it close.
    Thanks for the post! Can’t wait to get to the sale. I’ll go with a project list in mind; so I don’t overspend :-/

    Reply
    • 2summers

      That’s a very smart strategy. It’s easy to lose your mind in there 😂

      Reply
    • Josef Talotta

      Hi Margaret! Curious: do you remember the name of the Braamfontein building (or its Braam street address) where Arthur Bales was located?

      Reply
  3. dizzylexa

    Yay! so glad you wrote this blog, I can’t wait to get my hands on one of their bulletins. That corner of fabrics must be of the best fabric I’ve ever seen. Ha ha it does bring back memories of domestic science classes, which incidentally I loved. Looking forward to your completed projects.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Well, that’s great! We didn’t have home-economics/domestic science in my school and honestly I think I could have used it 🙂

      Reply
      • AutumnAshbough

        We weren’t required to take it in my school, either. Which is why my husband knows how to operate a sewing machine and I do not.

        Reply
  4. Stan Garrun

    Yet another wonderful Blog, Heather! I learned a bit about knitting in Jo’burg while accompanying my wife Brenda to find ‘’wool shops’. The one she frequented closed down with COVID. (She is knitting for our granddaughter in England and she knits scarves for people who beg at the traffic lights). Sorry we didn’t know about Arthur Bales! Now that we do we will definitely visit. And I am sure Bren will comment when I show her your post. Thanks again for what you do. You are amazing!

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Ahhhhh, you and Brenda are in for a serious treat then 🙂

      Reply
      • Stan Garrun

        😊

        Reply
  5. Pat Sneddon

    I so enjoyed reading your blog and your interest in our family. We never knew our grandfather and great grandfather, the first Arthur Bales, as he passed away when our father and grandfather, the second Arthur Bales, was in his mid teens.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Thanks you so much, Pat. I really enjoyed reading about your family’s history!

      Reply
  6. Nazarene

    Hi summer my fav store as well….Do you know of any place that teaches knitting want to learn more then just the basics

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Hi Nazarene, I actually don’t! I have a friend who’s teaching me and otherwise I just use YouTube. But I’ll bet you can find information about this at Arthur Bales! Maybe just go in and ask them.

      Reply
  7. Marlene Jones

    Interesting article

    Reply
  8. Lani

    I love the history. My goodness, and that place looks heavenly. I’ve been contemplating teaching my 3rd graders how to crochet this year. So inspiring to see all that yarn and fabric, xo

    Reply
    • 2summers

      That sounds fun! I’d be curious to hear about the yarn situation in Thailand.

      Reply
      • Lani

        Actually, many Indian-Thai families own these types of fabric and yarn stores.

        And it was eyebrow raising to see women crocheting in a tropical climate — won’t lie. Especially Cambodia, they wear their knitted hats, etc in this heat!

        Reply
        • 2summers

          That’s very interesting! I struggle to knit when it’s really hot out.

          Reply
          • Lani

            Absolutely. It feels like a cool weather activity 🙂

  9. Maud Flink

    Both my mother and her sister worked at Arthur Bales. I think this was from 1928. I know my mother had to do an apprenticeship for 5 years. She loved working there.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Wow, that’s amazing!

      Reply
  10. Joanne K

    I stumbled across your blog when researching mine dumps and had to read this post. We lived near the Linden swimming pool when I was growing up and would walk up to the shops and to the library. We would buy fabric and wool at Arthur Bales. Thanks for bringing back memories.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      It’s a pleasure! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Linden is a great suburb.

      Reply

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