Shwe Shwe Textiles
Shweshwe cotton fabric expresses a cultural heritage of South Africa.
It tells of the changing traditions of African Customary dress over time.
Such developments can be attributed to missionary and “western” European influences.
The presence of indigo cloth in South Africa has a long and complex history. Its roots probably extend as far back as early Phoenician and Arab trade along the eastern seaboard before 2400BC. (Natural indigo dye was obtained from the Leguminous Genus, Indigofera plant.)
However, it is known that indigo cloth did arrive in South Africa from India and Holland after the 1652 establishment of a sea port at the Cape of Good Hope. Slaves, soldiers, Khoi-San and Voortrekker women were clothed in indigo and there is also evidence of floral printed indigo.
During the 18th - 19th centuries European textile manufacturers developed a block and discharge printing style on indigo cotton fabric. and much of this cloth entered the South African market.
In the early 1840's French missionaries presented the famous Sotho King Moshoeshoe 1st with a gift of indigo printed cloth establishing a cloth preference that grew during the 19th century and still prevails today, hence the term shoeshoe or isishweshwe.
German settlers to the Eastern Cape in 1858 often elected to wear the Blue Print that was widely available as a trade cloth and echoed the Blaudruk that they were familiar with in Germany.
Xhosa women gradually added what they termed “Ujamani” to their red blanket clothing. These mission-educated African women absorbed European clothing styles enjoying the blue hue that the indigo gave their skin.
Such was the demand for the fabric that eventually there were four companies producing this print style, the largest being Spruce Manufacturing, who produced the most popular brand name, Three Cats, which was exported to South Africa.
Isishweshwe has a distinctive prewash stiffness and smell: this is inherent in its production and history, when during the long sea voyage from England to to South Africa, starch was used to preserve the fabric from the elements and gave it its characteristic stiffness. After washing, the stiffness disappears to leave behind a beautiful soft cotton fabric.
Typical use in South Africa has been for traditional ceremonies in rural areas, ensuring a constant demand for Shweshwe. In certain cases, special designs are produced for imporatnt ocasions such as royal birthdays and national festivals. Today this fabric has become fashionable beyond its traditional usage and praise must go to young South African designers for their renewed interest in this traditional national heritage.
The production of Indigo Discharge Printed Fabric in South Africa started in 1982 when Tootal (a UK based company) invested in Da Gama Textiles. Blue Print was then produced under the trademark of Three Leopards , the South African version of the Three Cats trademark. They also introduced 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 from England to the Zwelitsha plant in the Eastern Cape.
Da Gama still produces the original 'German Print', 'Ujamani' or 'Shweshwe' at the Zwelitsha factory. The process is still done traditionally where the fabric is passed under copper rollers which have the patterns etched on the surface allowing the transfer of a weak discharge solution onto the fabric. Subsequent unique finishing processes create the distinctively intricate all-over prints and beautiful panels.
(Extracts derived and adapted from Da gama Textiles’ brief history)