Where is the best place to buy Shweshwe cloth?
This was the first question I was faced with recently at the breakfast table. Guests wanted to buy Sheshwe cloth to take home to Germany. With its German origins they felt a particular connection to this indigo blue cloth which has become so synonymous with South African traditional fabric. I pointed them to Arthur Bales in Linden – that amazing haberdashery store with its old-world feel. Or else suggested they could go to the very third world vibe of the Fashion District in downtown Joburg.
What’s in a name?
They were fascinated with the history of Shweshwe which gets its name from the Sotho king Moshoeshoe [Moshweshwe] I after French missionaries presented him with some of the indigo printed cloth in the 1840s. The cloth was further popularized in the Eastern Cape when German settlers in the late 1850s often chose to wear the blue cloth which echoed the German Blaudruk. Xhosa women gradually added what they termed Ujamani to their red blanket clothing. Shweshwe clothing is traditionally worn by newly married Xhosa women, known as makoti, and married Sotho women.
Block and Discharge printing – what does this mean?
The first indigo cloth was introduced to the Cape when it became a seaport. At that stage the indigo dye was made from natural material and most of the cloth came from India via Holland. The printing technique used was known as block and discharge. The block refers to the woodblock out of which the patterns were gouged before being soaked in dye and pressed onto the fabric. And the discharge refers to the bleaching of the indigo to produce the white areas. In the early 1860s a German developed a synthetic indigo.
From Europe to South Africa
By the 1930s the cloth was being made in Lancashire in England. There were several factories making the cloth. The largest was Spruce Manufacturing which produced the brand name, Three Cats – the one which was exported to South Africa . In 1992 Da Gama Textiles bought the sole rights to Three Cats and the original engraved copper rollers were shipped to South Africa. Da Gama Textiles uses cotton from Southern Africa, mostly from Kwazulu Natal. The traditional block and discharge process is still used (although the woodblock is now a copper roller). The fabric is fed through copper rollers seen on the right, which have patterns etched on the surface, allowing a weak acid solution to be fed into the fabric, bleaching out the distinctive white designs.
Starched stiffness – signifier of authenticity
Isishweshwe has a distinctive prewash stiffness and smell which is very much part of its appeal and popularity. During the long sea voyage from the UK to South Africa, starch was used to preserve the fabric and this gave it its characteristic stiffness. After washing, the stiffness disappears to leave behind a beautiful soft cotton fabric. Apparently at one stage the fabric was no longer starched but when sales dropped, it was reintroduced.
From ‘tradition’ to high fashion
Mma Precious Ramotswe in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency wore outfits made from Shweshwe.
A fascinating history which is all the more interesting when seen within the context of Homi Bhaba’s notion of hybridity.
For Da Gama Shweshwe patterns and designs see www.dagama.co.za/product-category/home-sewing/three-cats/