Shweshwe (//) is a printed dyed cotton fabric widely used for traditional South African clothing. Originally dyed indigo, the fabric is manufactured in a variety of colours and printing designs characterised by intricate geometric patterns. Due to its timeless popularity, shweshwe has been described as the denim, or tartan, of South Africa.
The local name shweshwe is believed to be derived from the fabric's association with Lesotho's King Moshoeshoe I, also spelled "Mshweshwe". Moshoeshoe I was gifted with the fabric by French missionaries in the 1840s and subsequently popularised it.
It is also known as "German print", sejeremane in Sotho, and ujamani in Xhosa, after 19th century German and Swiss settlers who imported the blaudruck ("blue print") fabric for their clothing and helped entrench it in South African culture.
Shweshwe is traditionally used to make dresses, skirts, aprons and wraparound clothing. Shweshwe clothing is traditionally worn by newly married Xhosa women, known as makoti, and married Sotho women. Xhosa women have also incorporated the fabric into their traditional ochre-coloured blanket clothing. Aside from traditional wear, shweshwe is used in contemporary South African fashion design for women and men from all ethnic groups, as well as for making accessories and upholstery. It is also used in the United States as a quilting fabric.
Shweshwe is manufactured with an acid discharge and roller printing technique on pure cotton calico. It is printed in widths of 90 cm, in all-over patterns and A-shaped skirt panels printed side by side. The fabric is manufactured in various colours including the original indigo, chocolate brown and red, in a large variety of designs including florals, stripes, and diamond, square and circular geometric patterns. The intricate designs are made using picotage, a pinning fabric printing technique rarely used by contemporary fabric manufacturers due to its complexity and expense, although the design effects have been replicated using modern fabric printing techniques.
Previously imported to South Africa from Europe, the trademarked fabric has been manufactured by Da Gama Textiles in the Zwelitsha township outside King William's Town in the Eastern Cape since 1982. In 1992 Da Gama Textiles bought the sole rights to Three Cats, the most popular brand of the fabric made by Spruce Manufacturing Co. Ltd in Manchester, and the original engraved copper rollers were shipped to South Africa. Da Gama Textiles has made shweshwe from cotton imported from Zimbabwe and grown locally in the Eastern Cape.
The local textile industry, including shweshwe production by Da Gama Textiles, has been threatened by competition from cheaper inferior quality imitations made locally and imported from China and Pakistan. The genuine product can be recognised by feel, smell, taste, sound, a solid colour from dyeing and trademark logos on the reverse side of the fabric, a smaller than average 90 cm fabric width and stiffness of the new fabric from traditional starching which washes out. As at November 2013, shweshwe production by Da Gama Textiles had reduced to five million metres per annum.
In popular culture
- Jill Scott, who portrayed the main character Mma Precious Ramotswe in The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency TV series, wore outfits made from shweshwe for the production.
- "shwe-shwe or shweshwe". Collins English Dictionary. Retrieved 30 January 2014.
- Rochlin, Margy (5 June 2009). "Jo Katsaras: 'No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency'". New York Times. Archived from the original on 24 January 2013. "But Ms. Katsaras always keeps the series's central character, the private investigator Precious Ramotswe (Jill Scott, above), the focus of attention with colorful dresses and head scarves made of shweshwe, the traditional South African fabric known for its pulsating motifs."
- Grange, Helen (4 May 2011). "Stylish isishweshwe? Check". The Star. Archived from the original on 24 January 2014. Retrieved 24 January 2014.
- deVillemarette, Cynthia (July–August 2010). "Shweshwe: A True Blue Passion". The Country Register of Tennessee & Kentucky. "The designs are created using a discharge process, unlike modern printed fabrics where color is added to the surface. With Shweshwe, the cotton cloth is first entirely dyed, thoroughly penetrating the fiber. Then, the cloth is passed through copper design rollers, which emit a mild acid solution, removing color with pinpoint accuracy. One of the characteristics of Shweshwe is the intense use of picotage, tiny pin dots that create not only the designs, but also texture and depth. It is because of the difficulty and expense in creating these designs that they fell out of favor with American and European manufacturers, who chose instead to move to printing processes. Da Gama Textiles of South Africa is the only known manufacturer of fabrics still using the discharge process ... The reverse side of the fabric will be a solid color because it was dyed. Da Gama also prints its seal on the back to help you identify it."
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- Fulton, Claire (23 November 2006). "Cottoning on to Shweshwe chic". South Africa.info. Archived from the original on 14 January 2012. Retrieved 23 January 2014.
- "Home Sewing". Da Gama Textiles. Retrieved 22 January 2014. "Some of our recognised brands include ... The Original Shweshwe ethnic printed 3 CATS, 3 LEOPARDS, TOTO and FANCY PRINTS, which are acid discharge prints on cotton calico."
- "History of Shweshwe". Da Gama Textiles. Archived from the original on 9 August 2013. Retrieved 21 January 2014.
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- Barbieri, Annalisa (3 April 2008). "All shapes and sizes". New Statesman. Archived from the original on 4 December 2008. Retrieved 24 January 2014.
- Ralfe, Liz (2004). "Love Affair with my Isishweshwe". In Weber, Sandra; Mitchell, Claudia. Not Just Any Dress: Narratives of Memory, Body, and Identity. New York: Peter Lang. pp. 211–218. ISBN 978-0-8204-6118-2.
- Pheto-Moeti, Mabokang Baatshwana (2005). An Assessment of Seshoeshoe Dress as a Cultural Identity for Basotho Women of Lesotho (M.Sc. thesis). University of the Free State.
- Maphangwa, Shonisani (2010). From Colonial to Post-Colonial: Shifts in Cultural Meanings in Dutch Lace and Shweshwe Fabric (M.A. thesis). University of Johannesburg.
- Moletsane, Relebohile; Mitchell, Claudia; Smith, Ann, eds. (2012). Was it Something I Wore?: Dress, Identity, Materiality. Cape Town: HSRC Press. ISBN 978-0-7969-2362-2.
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