Shweshwe, also known as isishweshwe and shoeshoe, is a cotton fabric that comes in a variety of hues and intricate print designs. It was originally dyed indigo, which is why its formal name is ‘Indigo-dyed discharge printed fabric’. Printed on cotton grown in the Eastern Cape of South Africa (SA), it’s a trademarked fabric manufactured by Da Gama Textiles. They are the only manufacturers in the world who make the authentic shweshwe.
This distinctly African fabric has its origins set in Europe. The French missionaries introduced the indigo cloth to SA in the mid-1800s. They presented it as a gift to King Moshoeshoe in the early 1840s. Locally, this established a preference for the cloth in the 19th century and subsequently grew its popularity.
Originally used to make traditional attire, such as skirts and dresses, it is still used in Xhosa weddings where it is worn by the makhoti (bride). The Tswana, Sotho and Pedi of Southern African use it in their traditional ceremonies as well. Today, shweswehe is used by all ethnic groups in contemporary South African fashion design, upholstery and accessories manufacturing. Here are some facts about the Shweshwe fabric:
The local name is derive from King Moshoeshoe’s name, which can also be written as ‘Moshweshwe. It is also referred to as Ujamani in Xhosa, Sejeremane in Sotho and Blaudruck by Swiss and German settlers. Some believe that Shweshwe is the onomatopoeic word for the switching sound skirts made from the material.
About Da Gama Textiles
At first, the cloth was imported from Europe. Then the Da Gama Textiles began to manufacture the fabric in 1982. They set up their operation in the Zwelitsha Township situated in the Eastern Cape, outside King William’s Town. It wasn’t until 1992 that they bought the sole rights to the most popular brand of the fabric, Three Cats. It used to be produced by Spruce Manufacturing Co. Ltd in Manchester. Once the rights were acquired, the original engraved copper rollers were transferred to Da Gama Textiles. All the original Shweshwe from the Da Gama Textiles comes with a Three Cats back stamp to show its authenticity.
Original Shweshwe fabric has a distinct texture and scent. Some say that it has a salty taste too. Another sign it’s an original Shweshwe is in its width measurements. While standards fabrics have a 45 or 60 inches width, Shweshwe has a width of 36 inches. Lastly, Shweshwe tends to be rigid. Thus, it’s advisable that it washed before sewing. Washing not only removes the stiffness but also the starch that is used to preserve it.
Designs & Hues
It started out as indigo cloths but overtime, it began to incorporate a variety of shades. One piece can have up to four colours. Although they usually use distinct geometric patterns, you can find pieces with abstract designs as well. Limited edition designs were also introduced to recognise certain people or events. For instance there is the ‘Madiba’ range that celebrates the life of Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa.
By integrating this product into celebratory and everyday roles, the Shweshwe has shrugged off its European textile trade roots. Now, it’s not only a relevant textile in society but t has also become synonymous with South Africa.
The demand for the textile has led to the rise of fakes in the market. Companies in countries such as China have allegedly been counterfeiting the original Shweshwe and flooding local markets. They’ve further been accused of going as far as producing designs featuring prominent South African political leaders as well. Because the counterfeits are cheaper, selling at almost half the price of an original Shweshwe, the local craftsmanship is under threat. By 2013, Da Gama Textiles had already lost approximately 10 per cent of its market to these cheap imports. They can’t compete with the low prices which directly hurts job security and their ability to grow employment opportunities.South Africans took the cloth and adapted it to their tastes through motifs, designs and colours. By associating them with ceremony, religion and their daily life, they were able to make it meaningful and even more desirable. Today, local designers such as Bonono Merchants, Shweshwekini Active Wear and Maria McCloy have gone a step further to encourage modern South Africans to change their perspective on the Shweshwe. That it shouldn’t be reserved for weddings and special occasions. Rather, they should proudly use and wear it as often as they do western/foreign materials.