Xhosa women gradually added what they termed “Ujamani” to their red blanket clothing. These mission-educated African women absorbed European clothing styles enjoying the blue hue that the indigo gave their skin.
Such was the demand for the fabric that eventually there were four companies producing this print style, the largest being Spruce Manufacturing, who produced the most popular brand name “Three Cats” which was exported to South Africa.
Typical use in South Africa has been for traditional ceremonies in rural areas, thereby ensuring a constant demand for Shweshwe. In certain cases, special designs are produced for important occasions such as royal birthdays and national festivals. Today this fabric has become fashionable beyond its traditional usage and praise must go to young South African designers for their renewed interest in this traditional national heritage.
The production of Indigo Discharge Printed Fabric in South Africa started in 1982 when Total (a UK based company) invested in Da Gama Textiles. Blue Print was then produced under the trademark of Three Leopards , the South African version of the Three Cats trademark. They also introduced new colour ways – a rich chocolate brown and a vibrant red. In 1992 Da Gama purchased the sole rights to own and print the branded Three Cats range of designs and had all the copper rollers shipped out from England to the Zwelitsha plant in the Eastern Cape.
Da Gama still produces the original ‘German Print’, ‘Ujamani’ or ‘Shweshwe’ at the Zwelitsha factory. The process is still done traditionally, where the fabric is passed under copper rollers which have the patterns etched on the surface allowing the transfer of a weak discharge solution onto the fabric. Subsequent unique finishing processes create the distinctively intricate all-over prints and beautiful panels.
(Extracts derived and adapted from Da gama Textiles’ brief history)