Most South Africans are familiar with the stiff, printed cotton fabric known as Shweshwe, widely used for traditional Sotho clothing.
The fabric has come a long way from its origins as a dyed indigo fabric. From the rather limited original blue, brown and red fabric we now have an enormous choice of vibrant colours and patterns. The characteristic overall patterning has remained but evolved into many more bold designs, including stripes, florals, squares and circular geometric patterns.
Plettenberg Bay residents were able to enjoy a collection of sophisticated, handmade Shweshwe items during an open day hosted by Jetty Oppenheimer.
Jetty, a long-time Plett resident, has always had a passion for textiles.
“Having studied art, I love colour and texture and I have always enjoyed discovering interesting fabrics on my travels,” she says.
Growing up, she often used to visit the family textile business in Helmond, The Netherlands, where the Vlisco brand of fabric was produced. Founded in 1846, the Vlisco Company produced affordable handprinted fabrics, mainly inspired by Indonesian batik.
The company found a ready market in West and Central Africa where the colourful designs were adapted to local tastes and soon grew into an essential part of African style culture.
As a child, Jetty loved watching the roller printing machines producing the colourful “Dutch Wax” fabrics, leading to her life-long interest in African textiles.
When she came to live in South Africa, after spending most of her life in Switzerland, she discovered local textiles and found that Shweshwe had a lot in common with Vlisco.
In Plett, she started using Shweshwe to produce simple items for domestic workers, such as aprons and “doeks”. These proved to be so popular that she approached three local seamstresses to make a few other items.
“I was delighted to find that they shared my love of the fabrics, and were enthusiastic about learning to create lovely decor items out of Shweshwe,” she explains. “While they were learning new skills, I was very happy to put something back into the community by empowering and encouraging them.”
After many months of commitment and hard work from these women, Jetty was ready to showcase their handiwork.
Over the years and in addition to traditional wear, Shweshwe has been used in contemporary South African fashion design for men and women from all ethnic groups and is increasingly enjoying popularity in other applications like accessories, upholstery, and quilting.