A brief history of Shweshwe
Dolapo James of modern African fabric retailer Urbanstax shares the origins of this distinctive South African printed cotton
Shweshwe, also known as, ‘shoeshoe’ or ‘isishweshwe’ is a printed cotton fabric that is manufactured in South Africa. The formal name for shweshwe is ‘indigo-dyed discharge printed fabric’. It is a trademarked fabric and the largest producer of shweshwe is the Three Cats brand, produced by Da Gama Textiles in the Zwelitsha township outside King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. It is printed onto cotton, which is grown locally, also in the Eastern Cape.
Shweshwe is produced by feeding cotton fabric through a series of copper rollers that have patterns etched into them. A weak acid solution is fed onto the fabric, bleaching out the distinctive intricate white designs to create an eclectic range of attractive prints.
The story goes that in 1840 French missionaries presented the then ruler, King Moshoeshoe, with indigo cloth, after which it was then referred to locally as shoeshoe and eventually shweshwe. I was also told by a South African lady that it is the onomatopoeic word for the shwishy sound the skirts make when women walk in their shweshwe skirts and dresses. Shwe shwe shwe – swishing away elegantly. For obvious reasons, this is clearly my favourite version of the story!
Shweshwe was originally only available in blue, thus known as ‘indigo cloth’ and it was brought to South Africa in the mid 1800s by German immigrants. This is why it is sometimes referred to as ‘German print’. It has been printed in many countries around the world, beginning in European countries such as Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and later England in the 1930s. Shweshwe has been worn by South African women since the 1800s, and the print continues to appeal across Africa and beyond.
The fabric is used to this day in traditional ceremonies in rural areas, and worn by Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana and Pedi peoples of Southern Africa especially during wedding ceremonies as bridal gowns and bridesmaid’s dresses. Often the groom can be seen in a matching outfit!
The original shweshwe fabric has distinct characteristics in smell, touch and even taste. If you were to taste it you would notice a saltiness. It also has a distinct smell and is quite stiff until washed. It is advised that you always wash the fabric before sewing as this removes the starch and stiffness of the fabric. You will also find that there is a branded manufacturer’s stamp on the reverse of the fabric to show the origins of the shweshwe.
Historically, starch was used to preserve the fabric when it was transported on long sea voyages from the UK to South Africa to prevent it getting damaged by the damp. This quirky characteristic has been retained even with local production.
Unlike many standard width fabric of 45 or 60”, shweshwe is 36” wide, which is important to note when it comes to buying your fabric and planning your next project. It is 100% cotton, weighs 158g after washing and should be washed with similar colours and at 40ºC to ensure that the colours do not run.
The designs usually consist of distinct geometric patterns usually with no more than three to four colours. Nevertheless, you will still find some more abstract designs, motifs and even florals. On seeing the beautiful Lion Head shweshwe I fell in love – it is one of my clear favourites!
Limited designs are also released to commemorate certain events or to recognise important people. For example, you might have come across the Nelson Mandela shweshwe. It is from the ‘Madiba’ range by Da Gama to celebrate the life of the former president of South Africa.
As mentioned before, shweshwe originally came in the indigo colour range. However, many new colourways have been introduced over time, with hot pinks, sunny oranges and yummy greens and more now available.
Shweshwe fabric is very popular with quilters especially in North America. The regular patterns, 100% cotton and small motifs lend the fabric to a huge array of quilting projects. It can also be used to make gorgeous clothing, especially skirts, tops and dresses, where you can really let the bold prints shine!
Find out more
Visit www.urbanstax.com to learn more about shweshwe and discover a large range of modern African fabric in all sorts of colours and designs.
For further inspiration on how to sew with shweshwe, head to www.dagama.co.za