The History of Shweshwe

What is ShweShwe?

Most of us are familiar with the gorgeous, vibrant African cloth called shweshwe that many South African women wear. Our team here at Ebontu are absolutely in love with the vibrant, bold fabric, so we just needed to find out more about it!

Shweshwe is a dyed and printed cotton fabric which is widely used for traditional South African clothing. Shweshwe originates from a fabric known as indigo – and is manufactured in a variety of colours and printing designs characterised by intricate geometric patterns. This striking, breathtaking fabric has established timeless popularity within the South African context.


Image Source:Etsy andBontle Bride

The History of this South African Fabric

Shweshwe is one of the most breathtaking clothing fabrics amongst South African women. We love the bold and playful print! But where did it all start? The presence of shweshwe, initially known as indigo cloth, has a long and complex history in South Africa.

The arrival of the indigo cloth emerged after the 1652 establishment of a seaport at the Cape of Good Hope. At this time, slaves, soldiers, Khoi-san and Voortrekker women were clothed in indigo – no matter what the status, it is evident that indigo was widely spread across different types of social groups. Much of the early indigo cloth at the Cape was from India and Holland.

Where does indigo come from? Natural indigo dye was obtained from the Indigofera Tinctoria plant, however, in 1862 a German chemist developed synthetic indigo. This development caused a massive leap forward in the manufacturing process of indigo! In the 18th century printed indigo was manufactured in Czechoslovakia and Hungary – much of this bold fabrics entered the South African market.

Traditional Wedding with ShweShwe dresses


Where does the name come from?

In the early 1840s, French missionaries presented Moshoeshoe 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. As many South African women were drawn to this beautiful fabric, they happily made it their own. Xhosa women gradually added what they termed Ujamani to their red blanket clothing. These African women enjoyed and indulged in European clothing styles and loved the blue hue the indigo gave their skin.


How it’s Made and How to Identify it

The Zwelitsha factory in the Eastern Cape produces most of the shwe shwe fabrics in the country. The process has been kept very traditional – fabric is fed through copper rollers, these rollers have patterns etched on the surface, allowing a weak acid solution to be fed into the fabric. This allows bleaching of the distinctive white designs. Shweshwe fabric is easy to identify – the intricacy of the beautiful prints and panels show off the fabric gorgeously.

The brands which are associated with the shweshwe fabric include Three Cats, Three Leopards and Toto 6 Star – they authenticate the fabric by inserting a backstamp onto the fabric. The Three Cats range is sourced from a closed library of designs whereas the Three Leopards range introduces new designs on a regular basis.

Users of the shweshwe fabric are skilled at verifying the authenticity by touch, smell and taste to ensure that they are purchasing the genuine fabric and not a reproduction of it. Indigo usually fades with washing, which is a shared characteristic of denim.  When it comes to isishweshwe fabric, it usually has a distinctive prewash stiffness and smell. The reason for this lies in its production and history – 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 a beautifully soft cotton fabric.

It is still very popular today and used in many traditional dresses and modern African wedding dresses such as the bridal gowns designed by local South African dress designer, Shifting Sands African Couture. See some of here amazing African Dresses in our blog.

Shweshwe Dresses

The typical use of the fabric is for traditional ceremonies in the rural areas, thus ensuring a constant demand for shweshwe. In certain cases, special designs are produced for important occasions such as royal birthdays and national festivals. Today this fabric has become fashionable beyond its traditional sphere of usage, and praise and recognition must go to our young South African designers for their renewed interest in this traditional national heritage.

Shweshwe dresses have also become very popular in weddings, many brides and guests like to incorporate this beautiful design into their garments.

Check out some more traditional wedding dresses on our wedding directory.

ashion-african-shwe-shwe dress-shwe-shwe

Image Source: DeZango and Fashionte 


Shweshwe – The Human Factor

In addition to young designers across South Africa, credit must also be given to wholesalers who practise sustainability by creating employment opportunities for people in the urban areas. What happens is that they sell shweshwe fabric by the meter and commission the informal sector to make garments. The wholesalers are active participants in assisting small business entrepreneurs in the make-up and selling of their wares.

One of the big producers in South Africa that we give credit to is Da Gama Textiles. Da Gama Textiles has acquired a national reputation and have become a household name with their Isishweshwe production. At present, Da Gama Textiles is perhaps the only known producer of traditional Indigo Dyed Discharge Printed Fabric in the world. They are committed to continuing to produce quality prints that distinguish them from the reproductions in the marketplace, upholding the traditional values that have become associated with this fabric over the centuries among diverse cultural groups throughout South Africa.


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