Cottoning on to Shweshwe chic

23 November 2006

Shweshwe – the ethnic-print “indigo cloth” synonymous with traditional black South African dress – has slaves, German settlers, Basotho King Moshoeshoe and the catwalks of New York woven into its story.

Now, emerging Eastern Cape farmers and a cotton initiative have moved this “national heritage item” into the development arena.

Go to Eastern Cape Madiba Action Shweshwe is manufactured by Da Gama Textiles at Zwelitsha outside King William’s Town – the only known producer of traditional indigo dyed discharge printed fabric in the world.

With its intricate indigo, white, chocolate or red African prints, it peaked as a fashion fabric in 2003, but has remained in steady demand for traditional clothing, tourism products and, surprisingly, American quilting, says marketer Helen Bester.

Homegrown cotton
Now it is the use of the Eastern Cape’s first commercially grown cotton in about 50 years in the production of shweshwe that is stirring excitement.

Some 1 000 hectares of cotton on farms in Addo, Keiskammahoek, Tyefu, Middledrift, Kat River, Qamata and the Karoo were harvested this year, largely escaping the August floods, says cotton gin director Adam Van der Westhuizen.

It was grown by 340 farmers (of which 320 are emerging farmers) as part of a cotton growing project initiated by the Eastern Cape Development Corporation in conjunction with Da Gama Textiles.

It is an ambitious expansion project that could see the province become a leading cotton producer in the country and up to 6 000 jobs created.

“The tourism industry has embraced shweshwe, using it for items like cushions, book covers, lampshades, placemats and even dog blankets,” says Bester. “In the fashion world it has been elevated by South African designers like Amanda Laird Cherry, Bongiwe Walaza and Marion Fassler.”

Walaza has shown shweshwe in Paris and in her Spring 2001 New York fashion collection. “All my work is rooted in the Transkei,” says Walaza. “It’s one of the reasons why I work so effectively with shweshwe.”

History of shweshwe
It is the history of shweshwe that stamps it on South African hearts.

It has been said that shweshwe derived its isiXhosa name from the swishing sound it makes when the wearer walks.

But Da Gama Textiles’ history attributes the name to the fact that French missionaries presented King Moshoeshoe I with a gift of indigo printed cloth in the 1940s. By association with the king, the cloth was called shoeshoe – and ultimately ishweshwe.

According to Da Gama Textiles’ records, indigo cloth arrived in 1652 with the establishment of a sea port at the Cape. Slaves, Khoisan and Voortrekker women wore indigo cloth from India and Holland and later from Lancashire in the 1930s.

The King Moshoeshoe I connection and the German settlers’ preference for the cloth – similar to their Blaudruk – further entrenched the fabric, and Xhosa women added what they called ujamani to their red blanket clothing.

UK investment
Production of shweshwe in South Africa began in 1982 when UK company Tootal invested in Da Gama Textiles.

The Blue Print was trademarked Three Leopards (the South African version of Three Cats) and a range called Toto introduced.

Beware of imitations!
To identify real shweshwe, look for a backstamp on the fabric of the Three Cats, Three Leopards or Toto 6 Star brands.

In 1992, Da Gama purchased the sole rights to own and print the Three Cats ranges, and the copper rollers were shipped out to South Africa.

Today the printing process is still done by feeding fabric through these copper rollers, etched with intricate patterns.

Shweshwe is typically stiff when new. This is because starch was historically used to preserve the fabric on long sea voyages from the UK to South Africa. After washing, the stiffness disappears, leaving a soft cotton feel.

This article was first published in Eastern Cape Madiba Action, summer 2006/07 edition. Republished here with kind permission of the author.