Modern shweshwe fabric comes in many colours, and is used mainly for African traditional dress. It has a rich history and its journey from the indigo fabric-makers of India to South Africa – via 18th-century German settlers – makes for fascinating reading.
‘Shweshwe.’ Say it again. ‘Shweshwe.’ Feels good on the tongue, doesn’t it? Sounds good, too.
And that’s what you hear when Xhosa ladies go by in their traditional dresses.
The formal name for shweshwe (also sometimes written shwe shwe) is ‘Indigo-dyed discharge printed fabric’. Historians claim that indigo cloth arrived in Africa more than 2 000 years ago, used as trade goods by the Arabs and Indians.
But it really took off in South Africa when German settlers introduced it to the Xhosa people in the mid-1800s.
Shweshwe is a stiff cotton fabric that initially came from India and was heavily starched to fight off the damp in the ships’ storage compartments as it crossed the ocean to the Eastern Cape.
Xhosa women took a look at these wondrous bolts of cloth, fell in love with the shweshwe fabric and made it their own.
Da Gama Textiles in King William’s Town, Eastern Cape, has – in honour of former president Nelson Mandela – brought out a ‘Madiba’s Range’ of the fabric, with his face adorned in the centre.
Da Gama has been producing shweshwe fabric since 1948, supplying an ever-faithful traditional market.
Although many associate the word ‘shweshwe’ with the familiar rustling of the fabric, others say it was named after King Moshoeshoe I of the Basotho.
In the 1840s, French missionaries gave some of the cloth to King Moshoeshoe and this, it is claimed, led to the name ishweshwe.
Whatever the origin of the name, shweshwe is a traditional dress fabric that has become wildly popular in modern African couture culture.
WHO TO CONTACT
Da Gama Textiles
HOW TO GET HERE
Da Gama Textiles is based in Zwelitsha, outside King William’s Town, in the Eastern Cape. You can, however, buy shweshwe fabric at most craft outlets in the Eastern Cape and, indeed, nationally.