Discovering the ShweShwe, a colorful and vibrant fabric of South Africa

This heavy cotton fabric is distinguished by its vibrant colors and its repeating and varied geometric patterns. It inspires many designers so we can find it in fashion and accessories as well as in decoration.

The blue of indigo

The origin of this fabric is outside the continent and dates back to antiquity! The Arabs and Phoenicians already used this Indigo tincture from the Indigofera Tinctoria tree also known as the Indigotier. The leaves of this plant, cultivated mainly in tropical regions of Asia, were once used for the preparation of indigo tincture, a tincture found in many cultures. It was the Dutch who brought this dyeing technique to South Africa in 1652 when they arrived in the Cape of Good Hope. It was then worn by slaves, soldiers, women of the Khoisan peoples and the Boer community of Voortrekker.

From Europe to South Africa

The process that gives such precise patterns comes from Europe. It was during the 18th and 19th centuries that European textile manufacturers developed a fading printing process, which they used on indigo fabrics pre-dyed with a synthetically produced color.

This method consisted of passing the fabric through copper rolls engraved with the patterns and which released a bleach revealing the print. The manufacture of the ShweShwe, then known as "Blaudruk" moved from Germany to the Netherlands, to England, to finally become exclusively South African in 1982 with the company Da Gama in Zwelitsha in the Eastern Cape. Since then, its famous brands "3 cats" and "3 leopards" have become a symbol of the authenticity of the Shweshwe and it becomes unique to the rainbow nation.

The origin of the name ShweShwe

It was French missionaries who, around the 1840s, gave this print to Moshoeshoe I, Chief of the Sothos, the Bantu people of Lesotho. The latter was so won over that he gave his name to this print.

Another version of the story would come from the noise made by this starched-textured fabric when women walked down the street with their long, puffed skirts: Shwe-shwe-shwe...

In fact, the use of starch dates back to when the fabric was imported from Europe by ship to preserve the fabric during the crossing. Even today, the fabric is stiff when it comes out of the factory, but becomes soft and odorless from the first wash.

A 100% South African creation

This fabric originally was first declined in indigo, then in bright red and chocolate and now printed in new colors such as black, green, turquoise, pumpkin orange, hot pink and yellow-gold. The ShweShwe and its bright colors inspire a new generation of designers, the post-apartheid generation. Stigmatized by the racist apartheid regime, black South Africans had adopted Western clothing. But, with the first multiracial elections of 1994 emerged the theme of “African renaissance, and the black population became proud to be South Africans gradually, a fashion specific to South Africa emerged. For Maud Mbowane, designer of “Izimm clothing”, South African fashion is defined by its “individualism” and its “diversity”.


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