ShweShwe - A National Treasure
Updated: Apr 21, 2021
The well known fabric ShweShwe has a far reaching history. Here we explore how this simple indigo dyed fabric became a part of South Africa's heritage.
The trading in the distinctive Indigo cloth that we have come to know and love as ShweShwe is thought to reach back to the Arab and middle-eastern merchants who traveled the Eastern seaboard prior to 2400BC. However, the introduction of this cloth to South Africa happened soon after the seaport at the Cape of Good Hope was established in 1652. All classes and races of people wore the cloth which was brought in from India and Holland.
It was after French missionaries presented Lesotho's King Moshoeshoe with a gift of this indigo printed cloth around 1840, that the name ‘shoeshoe’ or ‘isishweshwe’ started to be popularised and is still in use today. The acceptance of this versatile cloth was spread wider when the German settlers in the Cape took to wearing it after their arrival in 1858, mainly as it reminded them of the ‘bloudruk’ fabric that they were familiar with in their home country.
Xhosa women gradually added ShweShwe (which they termed ‘Ujamani’) to their standard red banket clothing. This was true of many of the mission-educated African women who absorbed this European clothing style. It is reported that they liked the blue hue that the indigo cloth gave their dark skin tones.
As textile technology developed through the 18th and 19th centuries, the European manufacturers produced a ‘block and discharge’ printing style on the indigo fabric base. After a synthetic indigo dye was developed in 1862 by a German chemist, the popularity of the designs grew even more. Discharge printed indigo cloth was produced mainly in Czechoslovakia and Hungry by Gustav Deutsch, and much of this cloth entered the South African market. He emigrated from Europe to England in the 1930’s and established a factory in Lancashire which was eventually sold to the Blue Printers Company, a Wigan based mill. The demand for this style of fabric grew until there were four companies producing the fabric. The brand name ‘Three Cats’ which was commonly exported to South Africa, was manufactured by Spruce Manufacturing, the biggest of these companies.
The production of Indigo Discharge Printed Fabric in South Africa started in 1982 when Tootal (a UK based business) invested in the local Da Gama Textiles company. Blue Print was then produced under the Trade Mark of Three Leopards, the South African version of the Three Cats trademark. Tootal also introduced a range named Toto, as well as two new colour ways – a rich chocolate brown and a vibrant red.
In 1992 Da Gama purchased the sole rights to own and print the branded Three Cats range of designs, and had all the copper rollers shipped out to the Zwelitsha plant. To date Da Gama Textiles still produces the original ‘German Print’, ‘Ujamani’ or ‘Shweshwe’ at the Zwelitsha factory in the Eastern Cape. The process is still done traditionally whereby fabric is fed through copper rollers which have patterns etched on the surface, allowing a weak acid solution to be fed into the fabric, bleaching out the distinctive white designs.
There has been an upsurge in overseas counterfeit copies of the fabric, particularly from China. These tend not to have the same intensity of colour and fade quickly. True ShweShwe is recognisable for its intricate, repetitive all-over prints and beautiful panels. The common trademarks or brands, Three Cats, Three Leopards and Toto 6 Star are authenticated by a backstamp on the reverse of the fabric. ShweShwe aficionados also use touch, smell and taste to ensure that they are purchasing the genuine fabric and not reproduction or fake cloth. The indigo fades in the same way as denim with regular washing, giving it the nickname African denim.
The Three Cats designs are only sourced from a traditional library of designs, whereas the Three Leopards range introduces new designs on a regular basis. It also has a distinctive pre-wash stiffness and smell. The reason for these characteristics lay in its production and history, when during the long sea voyage from the UK to South Africa, starch was used to preserve the fabric from the elements and gave it a characteristic stiffness. After washing, the stiffness disappears to leave behind the well known beautiful soft cotton fabric.
The use of ShweShwe in traditional ceremonies ensures a constant demand for the fabric, and sometimes special limited designs are produced for important royal occasions and festivals.
The author, Juliette Leeb-du Toit, in her book ‘A History of the Indigenisation of Blueprint in Southern Africa’ describes ShweShwe as “a globally known fabric – a distinctive South African cloth embedded in a multifaceted historical matrix associated with trade, colonial economies, missions and cultural appropriation – represents a major historical remnant of an intercultural past, with both Pan-African, Eastern and Western dimensions.” This, she says, testifies to a history of encounters and exchanges between humans across the globe.
She goes on to say “It’s difficult to ascribe its use more to one culture than to another. People in Namibia use it, as do those in Zimbabwe and those in contemporary Botswana. I have located this cloth’s usage in Angola. The cloth has acquired many local names, such as ijeremani, jelman or jereman among Nguni people; motoisihi, ndoetjie and mateis in Mpumalanga and Botswana; and seshoeshoe among Sesotho speakers; and has also acquired pattern names, especially in Lesotho.”
Da Gama Textiles produces five million metres of ShweShwe a year. Production used to be higher, but with increased competition to, and in the local market, growth has stagnated. The company is looking at ways to establish outlets. Hope can be found for these new markets with the help of young South African fashion designers who have elevated this fabric beyond its traditional usage. Thanks to them there is a renewed interest in this national heritage.
Credits and thanks to:
Brand South Africa – www.brandsouthafrica.com
Da Gama Textiles –
Da Gama Textiles,
Trusted Craft Design,
This blog piece was researched and curated by Andrew Knapp of The Design Train for use on the Clarens Butterfly Beds Facebook page. Kind thanks in particular to Da Gama Textiles for the use of extracts and images from their website
©The Design Train 2018