One of the things I noticed when I began working at Londolozi was the beautiful uniform worn by the ladies of the Londolozi choir. The skirts are a bright blue pattern matched by headscarves of the same material worn with a white shirt. After seeing how the ladies wore this traditional cloth I started to notice it elsewhere – as the runners on tablecloths used for certain evenings in the bush and at our Christmas feast in camp during 2014 where designer trees were adorned with bows in the same red patterned material. Once I had started to work with the Women’s Co-operative team in the Shangaan village, ideas for using the cloth were discussed and today guests can walk on a village tour to learn more about the fascinating culture of the Shangaan people as well as visit the Craft Centre where this same material is used for necklaces, hand-made toys, cushion covers and handbags.
The cloth that I write about is known as Shweshwe. To understand this fabric and how it has weaved its way into South African culture requires a short trip back in time.
The beginnings of Shweshwe as we know today began in Europe when cloth was imported from India for clothing production. In the East a natural indigo dye was used that was obtained from the Indigofera Tinctoria plant (Leguminous genus). In the 18th and 19th century, European textile factories developed a block and discharge printing style used on the indigo cotton fabric. In 1890, a German factory developed a synthetic indigo dye to replace the cotton dye that is still used today.
The material first arrived on our shores in 1858 after the arrival of German settlers who set up homes in the Eastern Cape and in Natal. The German women who wore the indigo cloth promoted a demand for the material and it was soon exported to South Africa.
The story of the printed material in Europe in the 18th century took seed in Czechoslovakia and Hungary where it was manufactured and printed by a man named Gustav Deutsch. Gustav emigrated to Britain in the 1930s and set up a factory in Lancashire. His factory and equipment was later purchased by Blue Printers Ltd in Wigan. The demand at this stage for the print style began to increase. During this period there were four companies producing the material print, with the largest one being Spruce Manufacturing who own the popular brand name, Three Cats.
Once the German settlers had begun wearing the blue print during the 19th century, the look of the cloth begun to cotton on (excuse the pun) and local Xhosa women started to introduce the print into their traditional dress replacing animal skin outfits with the newly available cotton ones. It has also been said that many of the Xhosa women enjoyed the look of the blue hue of the indigo cloth that complimented their darker skin.
It was in 1982 that South Africa begun the production of indigo dyed fabric when Tootal (a UK based company with all the necessary recipes and expertise) invested in the South African textile company Da Gama Textiles in the Zwelitsha township outside King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape. The German print was then designed under the trademark name Three Leopards and the South African version of the Three Cats trademark was born. At the time Tootal introduced a new range named Toto. The Toto range introduced two new colours– a chocolate brown and a vibrant red. Up until now, the colour had only been blue. Further to this, in 1992, Da Gama Textiles purchased the sole rights to own the Three Cats range of designs and today continues to produce the original ‘German Print’ or ‘Shweshwe’, the only known producer of traditional Indigo Dyed Discharge Printed Fabric in the world. Da Gama Textiles makes their Shweshwe from cotton imported from our neighbouring country Zimbabwe and grows the cotton locally in the Eastern Cape.
But how did the name “Shweshwe” come about? According to Da Gama Textiles, the name hails from French Missionaries who in the early 1840s presented the Lesotho King Moshoeshoe I also spelled “Moshweshwe” with a gift of the indigo printed cloth. The cloth became popularized in the 19th century and the name is said to have derived from“shoeshoe” or “shweshwe”. The name is also associated with the rustling sound that the fabric makes when it is worn.
This beautiful cloth that has found its way into our designs at Londolozi is a popular dress in many ethnic cultures and is worn in traditional ceremonies in rural areas, for important occasions and national festivities. The fabric continues to be worn mostly by Xhosa women but is also worn by many different ethnic communities, representing an authentic South African national design. The popularity of Shweshwe has been used by top South African designers with their designs even flaunted on the catwalks of Paris…
When you visit us at Londolozi, look out for the bright blue skirts worn by the choir. It’s amazing how one fabric can have such a rich and fascinating history – and we now get to enjoy it as part of our proudly South African culture.
How do you tell if the cloth is the original Shweshwe?
The fabric can be identified by the feel, taste, smell and sound. The cloth is now produced in various colours including the original indigo, red and brown and a variety of shapes including diamonds, squares, stripes, florals and circular geometric patterns and is made through a complex process. On the original fabric you will find the trademark logos on the reverse side of the cloth and the dye is a solid colour. The material is stiff when it is bought and has a smaller than average width of 90 cm. The stiffness of the new fabric washes out and the material becomes soft after the traditional starch that is used in production, is washed out.
Written by Kate Collins, Londolozi Blog Editor