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shweshwe shweshwe - the traditional South African cotton fabric shweshwe

about shweshwe

Shweshwe is a discharge printed cotton fabric – which means that the cotton cloth is dyed (traditionally using indigo dye) and certain areas of the dye removed with a weak acid solution that is applied to the fabric using beautifully patterned copper rollers. This results in the typical white pattern on a vibrant coloured background (the traditional indigo blue, a sumptuous red, and deep chocolate brown). This is a very traditional method and some of the copper rollers might still be remnants of those send over from factories in England where the fabric used to be manufactured. The process of printing using the traditional rollers also explains the short width of the fabric as 36 inches was the standard width of cloth when manufacturing started.

Shweshwe fabric is heavily starched – the stiffness and particular smell, along with the traditional trademark logos on the back of the fabric guarantee the authenticity of the fabric. After the first wash the stiffness disappears leaving behind a beautifully soft cotton fabric that is a joy to work with.

Shweshwe as all indigo fabrics fades slowly the more you wash it, just like a pair of jeans.
Allow for about 10 % shrinkage on the warp and about 1 % on the weft.
You can wash shweshwe in the washing machine at 50°C. Line dry.

shweshwe history

Indigo printed cloth was brought to South Africa by settlers from Europe after a seaport was first established at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. While these early fabrics came mostly from India and Holland, in the middle of the 19th century much of the indigo cloth on the South African market came from Czechoslovakia and Hungary. These fabrics, called ‘blaudruck’, were often decorated with floral and geometric patterns printed in a technique called resist dying. The pattern was printed onto the fabric with a starch based resist paste using wooden blocks and then dyed and washed, leaving the areas that were covered in the resist paste white. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution this multi-step printing process became ever more sophisticated. This led to the invention of various discharge printing methods late in the nineteenth century.
The new methods meant that the fabric could be completely dyed (using cheaper synthetic indigo that had been invented in 1878) and that the pattern was etched out of the fabric using patterned copper rollers making the production cheaper and easier. Many of the patterns were copied from the earlier blaudruck woodblocks. German and Dutch settlers in South Africa were eager to buy the fabric that echoed the blaudruck cloth that they were familiar with from back home.

In the 1930s one of the big Czech manufacturers of the blueprint emigrated to England and established a factory in Lancashire. The cloth proved so successful that several more companies were established. At some point they even formed an Association of Blue Printers in the Lancashire area.

The most popular brand name of the UK blue print fabric ‘Three Cats’ was exported to South Africa and eventually production of indigo discharge printed fabric started in South Africa in 1984 when one of the UK blue print companies invested in Da Gama Textiles South Africa.
When the last company to manufacture the indigo cloth in the UK closed down 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 to the Zwelitsha plant in the Eastern Cape. This factory is now 45% employee-owned offering a sustainable future for them and their families.

In addition to the traditional indigo, Da Gama introduced two new colourways - a rich chocolate brown and a vibrant red. The traditional English designs of the ‘Three Cats’ range are still being printed. The new South African ranges (‘Three Leopards’ and ‘Toto Six Star’) introduce new designs every half year. All authentic shweshwe carries the trademark stamp on the back of the fabric.

The fabric is called shweshwe in South Africa. The term apparently established itself after French missionaries presented the King of Basotho Moshoeshoe I with a gift of indigo printed cloth in the 1840s. Another explanation often found for the name shweshwe is that the long skirts of South African women made from the fabric make a swishing sound when walking – shweshwe…

Especially Xhosa women took a liking to the indigo fabric that complemented their traditional red blanket clothing. Shweshwe has become a deeply ingrained part of their traditions with South African designer Laird Cherry claiming that some rural families took on specific shweshwe patterns as a form of identification, in a similar way as clan tartans are used for kilts.






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