What is ShweShwe?
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.
The History of this South African Fabric
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.
Where does the name come from?
How it’s Made and How to Identify it
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 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.
Shweshwe – The Human Factor
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.