Shwe Shwe: South African Textile
The formal name for shwe shwe is ‘Indigo-dyed discharge printed fabric’. It is said that the indigo cloth arrived in Africa more than 2000 years ago, used as trade goods by the Arabs and Indians. But it really kicked off in South Africa when German settlers introduced it to the Xhosa people in the mid-1800s. The Xhosa women took a look at these wondrous bolts of cloth, fell in love with the shwe shwe fabric and made it their own.
Da Gama has been producing shweshwe fabric since 1948, supplying an ever-faithful traditional market. Although many associate the word ‘shweshwe’ with the familiar rustling of the fabric, others say it was named after King Moshoeshoe I of the Basotho.
In the 1840s King Moshoeshoe I of Lesotho in South Africa was presented with a gift of indigo-printed cloth, which became popular among locals.
By association with the king, the cloth was called shoeshoe and ultimately ishweshwe and later shweshwe.
Due to its timeless popularity, shweshwe has been described as the demin or tertan (a pattern consisting of crisps-crossed horizontal and vertical bands in multiple colours) of South Africa. Shweshwe has a distinctive stiffness and smell—a pleasant smell. Historically 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. By the way, after washing the stiffness disappears to leave behind a beautiful soft cotton fabric.
The Basoth women of Lesotho called the cloth ujamani, or German print, after the Germans who also brought the cloth to South Africa. It has been said that shweshwe derived its isiXhosa name from the swishing sound it makes when the wearer walks.
Shweshwe is manufactured by Da Gama Textiles (the only known producer of traditional indigo dyed discharge printed fabric in the world) at Zwelitsha outside King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape Town.
MAKING OF SHWE SHWE FAFRIC
First, dye is made from the indigofera group of plants to colour the cloth. Cotton fabric is woven (plain weave) to a width of 90cm, then the fabric is dyed with an indigo paste which is passed through copper rollers (as shown above) which have patterns etched on the surface, this allows the discharge of a weak acid solution onto the fabric bleaching out the distinctive white designs. Subsequently a unique finishing process is use to create the distinctively intricate prints and beautiful panels. This process has remained the same since the 19th century.
FEATURES OF ORIGINAL SHWE SHWE FABRIC
– Original shweshwe is 100 percent cotton
– It is 90cm wide
– Original shweshwe colours are more vibrant and jewel-like, the white markings are more distinct because of the traditional discharge printing method used.
The original trademark, ‘Three Cats’ is only available in the traditional indigo blue, red and brown and its back stamp on the fabric.
Users are skilled at verifying the fabric’s authenticity by touch, smell, and taste to ensure that they are purchasing the genuine fabric and not reproduction or fake cloth. All original shweshwe is manufactured at Da Gama Textiles in Zwelitsha, in the Eastern Cape South Africa.
Image culled from: www.meerkatshweshwe.