Shweshwe has its origins in a fusion of African and European histories. Shweshwe was originally dyed with indigo, which has been found throughout the African continent for centuries, but it was European textile makers (via their traders) who introduced the printing method that makes the delicate prints.
The dyed fabric is fed through giant copper rollers that are etched with different types of patterns (initially, only a few designs were created but now new patterns are developed as well). While in the rollers, a mild acidic solution seeps into the fabric, removing the color and leaving a white print behind. The same process is still used today, meaning the fabric is produced in relatively narrow widths making it unsuitable for mass manufacture.
Although South Africa has long been importing the majority of the fabric, production only shifted there entirely in 1992 when Da Gama, now the leading producer of shweshwe in the country, purchased all of the copper rollers and the production rights from the European factory and imported them to their own factory in the Eastern Cape. They are also responsible for the introduction of brown and red fabrics that have been added in addition to the traditional indigo.
How to verify authentic Shweshwe
It’s important to verify the authenticity of the fabric as many cheaper, similar alternatives are available that lack shweshwe’s durability; today, there are several things to look for. First, all of the fabric has a backstamp of the Three Cats brand (the brand established pre-Da Gama copyright ownership and maintained by the company).
For those more familiar with shweshwe, it can be identified by touch, smell, and taste. The fabric is still sold stiffly starched as it was when it was imported from Europe (the starch helped to preserve the fabric during long salty sea voyages), imparting the distinctive taste and smell. Once washed, however, the starch dissolves and the fabric becomes quite soft. Excess dye is also washed away, leading the fabric to fade in a way not dissimilar to blue jeans.
Why the name shweshwe?
The origins vary. Some say the name derives from a South African King who was given bolts of the indigo fabric as a gift from settlers; others say that it comes from the sound that the fabric makes as it swishes when you walk.
Source: Life, Kaapstad Style