Isishweshwe – the denim of South Africa.
Growing up, I always thought of isishweshwe (Zulu for Shweshwe fabric) as something that my granny wore everyday or something a little special to welcome the makoti (bride) into the family. As a person that loves colour, it seemed boring as it came in indigo, red or brown. I would only wear shweshwe clothing for special occasions.
When I was 25, I lived and worked in the USA for 2.5 years, and although I had an amazing experience, I was happy to come back home and be with my family. The best part was, I was coming back home a week before my cousin’s traditional wedding. I would get to see my whole family all at once. As part of the culture, you normally get something made in shweshwe for the occasion, and since I wouldn’t have time, my friend took me shopping for an outfit.
Was I in for a surprise! What had happened to Shweshwe? It was completely transformed. Not only were the designs modern but the fabrics came in so many new and vibrant colours, and so here started my love and obsession with isishweshwe. That day I bought this yellow and brown wrap skirt, in a classic design. This was in 2014, and though I couldn’t sew then, one of the reasons I decided to start sewing in 2019 was so that I could incorporate more shweshwe fabric into my everyday closet.
The History of Shweshwe
Not surprisingly, like most other African textiles, the history of shweshwe fabric spans multiple continents. In the 1600’s, the Cape Dutch colonies had established trading with East Asia and goods were routed through Southern Africa before reaching Europe. Naturally dyed cloth from India was a big and thriving import, the fabric featured many varied and colourful patterns. The plant used for the indigo dye could not grow in the cold European climates, therefore the fabric was known for its exclusivity. In the Cape, the Dutch settlers purchased the fabric from traders on their way back to Europe.
In the late 1800’s, Germany developed synthetic indigo dye, and European shweshwe production took off. In 1840, French missionaries gifted the indigo printed cloth to Basotho King, King Moshoeshoe I. Impressed with the cloth, the King endorsed the fabric and it spread in popularity throughout the Sotho and Zulu tribes. The name Shweshwe (Zulu spelling versus the Sotho spelling shoeshoe) is derived from royal influencer King Moshoeshoe I. In 1858, the Germans arrived in the Eastern Cape; they too bought the indigo cloth. Xhosa women attending the German missions adopted shweshwe and it also gradually spread throughout the Xhosa people.
Shweshwe is also known as ujamani (meaning a German) in Xhosa, named after the German missionaries that bought the fabric. The formal name for shweshwe is “indigo-dye discharge cotton fabric.” Other South African tribes such as the Batswana tribes also adopted shweshwe fabric into their culture. Still today, the Batswana women will exclusively wear the indigo prints for wedding ceremonies and cultural gatherings. By the 1940’s, South Africa imported most of its shweshwe from England, including the most famous brand Three Cats.
By the 1980’s, isishweshwe was so popular amongst the Sotho, Tswana, Zulu and Xhosa tribes that it was entrenched into their culture. The fabric became popular in these tribes because it was known to be durable, attractive and functional. The cloth assumed a dignity and value attached to quality, hard work and decorum so that over time, it was absorbed into cultural significance. In 1982, UK clothing brand Tootal invested in Da Gama (based in Zwelitsha, Eastern Cape), a textiles manufacturer, to produce shweshwe locally. Da Gama Textiles flourished and produced new colours such as chocolate brown and burgundy/red. In 1992, Da Gama Textile purchased the Three Cats trademark and developed it into the popular brand that is known today.
Da Gama Textiles is the only manufacturer that produces the original shweshwe globally. Shweshwe is manufactured on pure cotton calico and uses patterned copper rollers to print the designs onto the fabric, which is then washed with a weak acid to produce it’s intricate white patterns. The original Shweshwe has a distinctive touch, smell and taste. It is quite stiff until you give it that first wash, has a strong starchy smell and a salty taste to it. You will always find the Three Cats manufacturer’s stamp at the back of the fabric to show the origin of shweshwe.
The Fashion Story
In the 1990’s shweshwe was still mainly known for traditional uses. In the early 2000’s, young South Africa designers started incorporating shweshwe into their design. This injection of creativity saw shweshwe being showcased at fashion runways globally. This innovation sparked Da Gama textiles to manufacture new colourways and patterns in shweshwe with the help of talented designers. By 2010, designers were using shweshwe designs in swimwear, jewellery, bags, shoes, children’s toys, underwear, ties, bow-ties and upholstery, and use of shweshwe has grown tremendously amongst quilters. Shweshwe has become less of a novelty fabric but the norm within South Africa fashion, culture and everyday life.
Sadly, the thriving popularity of isishweshwe has brought cheap imports from China and Pakistan. This has greatly affected the local textile market. Selling these polyester cotton imitations not only affects manufacturers such as Da Gama Textiles but designers and seamstresses in the market as they are unable to produce and sell at the super low prices of the imitations. Several years ago, Da Gama Textiles employed over 3000 employers, now they employ 683 employees. In a country like South Africa where the unemployment rate is approximately 23%, the highest demographic being the youth, there have been calls to the government to eradicate the trade of counterfeit goods as the problem has become enormous. In Nigeria, the government supports the local textile industry by limiting imported fabrics, this fosters a culture of pride in local design and production. There have been calls to implement similar laws in South Africa. In the meantime, Da Gama Textiles has done a lot of marketing locally to educate the public on buying quality and always checking for the manufacturer’s Three Cats stamp on the back of the fabric. There is a sense of pride in making sure you are wearing Three Cats original shweshwe.
The use of isishweshwe in everyday wear has forged the term “the denim of South Africa”. It is painting a new history for us South Africans in wearing our heritage, post colonialism and post apartheid. Isishweshwe is like our flag, unifying us against racism and tribalism and claiming it as proudly South African. We might not understand why our ancestors loved the cloth that was presented to them by their colonisers, but they have adapted it to their taste and lifestyle, so that it leaves no doubt that it is truly African.
- Da Gama Textiles:dagama.co.za
- Isishweshwe: A history of the Indigenisation of Blueprint in Southern Africa by Juliette Leeb-du Toit (2017)
- Statistics South Africa: http://www.statssa.gov.za/
- images from Village Secrets: https://villagesecrets.co.za/
- Images from uThando Love: https://instagram.com/uthando_love?igshid=129aqgjfyjjkp
Tino is based in Joburg, South Africa but is a well seasoned traveller who has recently found a new love in sewing. She’s a lover of all things to do with stars, a runner and for her 9 to 5 she’s a product development manager in aviation. She loves working with African fabric such as ankara and shweshwe fabric. Find Tino’s projects on Instagram @sewstartino or her blog https://sewstartino.com/