Shwe Shwe Textiles
Shweshwe cotton fabric expresses a cultural heritage of South Africa. It tells of the changing traditions of African Customary Dress over a period of time. Such developments can be attributed to both missionary and “western” European influences.
The presence of “indigo cloth” in South Africa has a long and complex history. Its roots probably extend as far back as early Phoenician and Arab Trade along the eastern seaboard before 2400BC. (Natural indigo dye was obtained from the Leguminous Genus, Indigofera plant).
However, it is known that after the 1652 establishment of a seaport at the Cape of Good Hope, indigo cloth arrived in South Africa from India and Holland. Slaves, soldiers, Khoi-San and Voortrekker women were clothed in indigo material and there is also evidence of floral printed indigo cotton.
During the 18th-19th centuries, European textile manufacturers developed a “block & discharge” printing style on indigo cotton fabric. and much of this cloth entered the South African market at this time. In the early 1840s, French missionaries presented the famous Sotho King Moshoeshoe 1st with a gift of indigo printed cloth establishing a cloth preference that grew during the 19th century and still prevails today, hence the term “shoeshoe” or “isishweshwe”.
Isishweshwe has a distinctive prewash stiffness and smell: this is inherent in its production and history when during the long sea voyage from England to South Africa, starch was used to preserve the fabric from the elements and gave it its characteristic stiffness. After washing, the stiffness disappears to leave behind a beautiful soft cotton fabric. (Perhaps the name is derived from the swishing sound this starchy fabric makes as this wearer walks along.
German settlers to the Eastern Cape in 1858 often elected to wear the “blueprint” that was widely available as a trade cloth and echoed the “Blaudruk” (literally means blueprint) that they were familiar with in Germany.