Shweshwe Traditional Dresses Biography
‘Shweshwe.’ Say it again. ‘Shweshwe.’ Feels good on the tongue, doesn’t it? Sounds good, too.
And that’s what you hear when Xhosa ladies go by in their traditional dresses.
The formal name for shweshwe (also sometimes written shwe shwe) is ‘Indigo-dyed discharge printed fabric’. Shwe Shwe fabric is a 100% cotton fabric manufactured in the traditional way using copper rollers which have patterns etched on the surface, allowing the transfer of a weak discharge solution onto the fabric. The process has remained the same since the 19th century.
Historians claim that indigo cloth arrived in Africa nearly more than 2000 years ago, used as trade goods by the Arabs and Indians.
But it really took off in South Africa when German settlers introduced it to the Xhosa people in the mid-1800s.
Shweshwe is a stiff cotton fabric that initially came from India and was heavily starched to fight off the damp in the ships’ storage compartments as it crossed the ocean to the Eastern Cape.
Xhosa women took a look at these wondrous bolts of cloth, fell in love with the shweshwe fabric and made it their own.
More recently, Shwe Shwe fabric has been taken to new heights in terms of patterns and colours and we love these fabrics as the inner lining for each of our bags.
About Shwe-shwe fabric:
Shwe-shwe fabric has a long history in South Africa. Shwe-shwe is an indigo-dyed discharge printed fabric. Historians claim that the indigo cloth arrived in South Africa more than 2000 years ago, used as trade goods by Arabs and Indians. In the mid 1800s, German settlers introduced it to the Xhosa people, the brilliant colour appealed to the Xhosa women and they made it their own. Wearing shwe-shwe cloth has become a tradition within the Xhosa culture, worn by newly married women, to show their marriage status. Traditionally the fabric came in three colours, blue, red and brown, now one can find it in many other colours including orange, pink and green.
Shweshwe cotton fabric expresses a cultural heritage of South Africa.
It tells of the changing traditions of African Customary dress over time.
Such developments can be attributed to missionary and “western” European influences.
The presence of indigo cloth in South Africa has a long and complex history. Its roots probably extend as far back as early Phoenician and Arab trade along the eastern seaboard before 2400BC. (Natural indigo dye was obtained from the Leguminous Genus, Indigofera plant.)
However, it is known that indigo cloth did arrive in South Africa from India and Holland after the 1652 establishment of a sea port at the Cape of Good Hope. Slaves, soldiers, Khoi-San and Voortrekker women were clothed in indigo and there is also evidence of floral printed indigo.
During the 18th - 19th centuries European textile manufacturers developed a block and discharge printing style on indigo cotton fabric. and much of this cloth entered the South African market.
In the early 1840's French missionaries presented the famous Sotho King Moshoeshoe 1st 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.
German settlers to the Eastern Cape in 1858 often elected to wear the Blue Print that was widely available as a trade cloth and echoed the Blaudruk that they were familiar with in Germany.
Xhosa women gradually added what they termed “Ujamani” to their red blanket clothing. These mission-educated African women absorbed European clothing styles enjoying the blue hue that the indigo gave their skin.
Such was the demand for the fabric that eventually there were four companies producing this print style, the largest being Spruce Manufacturing, who produced the most popular brand name, Three Cats, which was exported to South Africa.
Isishweshwe has a distinctive prewash stiffness and smell: this is inherent in its production and history, when during the long sea voyage from England to to South Africa, starch was used to preserve the fabric from the elements and gave it its characteristic stiffness. After washing, the stiffness disappears to leave behind a beautiful soft cotton fabric.
Typical use in South Africa has been for traditional ceremonies in rural areas, ensuring a constant demand for Shweshwe. In certain cases, special designs are produced for imporatnt ocasions such as royal birthdays and national festivals. Today this fabric has become fashionable beyond its traditional usage and praise must go to young South African designers for their renewed interest in this traditional national heritage.
The production of Indigo Discharge Printed Fabric in South Africa started in 1982 when Tootal (a UK based company) invested in Da Gama Textiles. Blue Print was then produced under the trademark of Three Leopards , the South African version of the Three Cats trademark. They also introduced new colour ways - a rich chocolate brown and a vibrant red. In 1992 Da Gama purchased the sole rights to own and print the branded Three Cats range of designs and had all the copper rollers shipped out from England to the Zwelitsha plant in the Eastern Cape.