Just one example of the vivid colours of Shwe Shwe, here with indigo and earth coloured terracotta cushion, a printed ideal of Kuba cloth and Kenyan hessian coffee sacks, just to keep it all from the one continent …
Shwe shwe are printed cotton fabrics used for traditional clothing since the 1840’s when French missionaries first gifted printed cottons to the Lesotho King Moshoeshoe or Moshweshwe.
These fabrics were originally indigo dyed and also known as sejeremane in Sotho and ujamane in Xhosa after 19thCentury Swiss and German settlers who brought their indigo dyed fabrics, blaudruck or ‘blue prints’ into the country.
This fabric, shweshwe, is so synonymous with South African dress that it seems surprising to learn that until very recently it was always imported, made in Manchester UK. In 1982 Da Gama Textiles bought the logo rights and the original engraved copper rollers were exported to South Africa, where they started to make the trademarked fabric from premises in the eastern cape. The designs are made with a pinning fabric printing technique, picotage, which is rarely used due to its complexity and expense; modern digital techniques can replicate the design at less cost. The intricate geometric patterning that was traditionally only dyed with indigo then extended to red, to chocolate brown and now in a variety of colours and designs.
Shweshwe is so much a part of the culture that it has variously been described as the denim or the tartan of South Africa. It’s wrapped or tailored into skirts, aprons, scarves and head wraps, dresses and wrap around clothing. Sotha and Xhosa women wear it once married, the Xhosa have incorporated shweshwe into their ochre coloured blanket clothing, and contemporary fashion designers love it.
The fabrics are sometimes called ‘Three Cat’ fabrics because of the logo that is always on the back side of every genuine 100% South African made shweshwe fabric. The printing is roller printed acid discharge onto cotton calico. Uniquely the fabric is heavily starched in the factory and are very stiff when new, although once washed it becomes very soft and easy to work for garments and light furnishing. One of the signifying factors is that these are made 90cm ( 36” ) wide.