A swishy multicultural delight

We’ve been enjoying working with some new shweshwe fabric we bought on a recent trip to Cape Town in South Africa. It’s such a treat for all the senses – sight and touch and even taste and smell!

Shweshwe is a printed cotton fabric that’s distinctive to South Africa. The most well known is the Three Cats brand, produced by Da Gama Textiles, which is based in the Eastern Cape province and uses locally grown cotton.

In an article about the history of shweshwe, Dolapo James of fabric retailer Urbanstax explains that shweshwe was originally known as indigo-dyed discharge printed fabric and was produced in blue only. Today it is produced in a range of vivid colours and patterns, although the designs produced by Da Gama are from a traditional library of designs.

It’s made by feeding cotton fabric through copper rollers etched with patterns. A weak acid solution bleaches out the distinctive intricate designs to create the amazing patterns. When new, shweshwe has a characteristic smell and stiffness; washed, it gets softer but doesn’t lose its colour. James writes that the stiffness is from the starch used in transporting the fabric, which was originally produced in Manchester, in England: ‘Historically, starch was used to preserve the fabric when it was transported on long sea voyages from the UK to South Africa to prevent it getting damaged by the damp. This quirky characteristic has been retained even with local production.

Shweshwe even has a taste – slightly salty before being washed – and the genuine article can be identified by the manufacturer’s logo stamped on the back.

Shweshwe’s history is a story of many cultures. Indigo cloth probably arrived in South Africa in the 17th century, from India and the Netherlands via the Cape of Good Hope. The printing of indigo (using a block and discharge method), however, was developed in Germany and Hungary in the 18th and 19th centuries and brought to South Africa by German and French immigrants in the 19th century. James writes:

‘The story goes that in 1840 French missionaries presented the then ruler, King Moshoeshoe, with indigo cloth, after which it was then referred to locally as shoeshoe and eventually shweshwe. I was also told by a South African lady that it is the onomatopoeic word for the shwishy sound the skirts make when women walk in their shweshwe skirts and dresses. Shwe shwe shwe swishing away elegantly. For obvious reasons, this is clearly my favourite version of the story!’

From the mid-19th century German settlers in the Cape brought the fabric with them to wear; the fabric is still sometimes known as ‘the German print’, and its name in German was ‘blauwdruk’, or blueprint. In the 1930s, manufacturerGustav Deutsch immigrated to Britain from Hungary and set up a factory to produce the printed cloth. Eventually at least four factories in England were producing shweshwe; the largest was Manchester-based Spruce Manufacturing Ltd, who produced the most popular brand name, Three Cats, and exported it to South Africa. In 1992, Da Gama purchased the rights to the Three Cats brand along with all the traditional designs and copper rollers for producing it.

Juliette Leeb-du Toit, author of A History of the Indigenisation of Blueprint in Southern Africa, describes shweshwe as ‘a globally known fabric – a distinctive South African cloth embedded in a multifaceted historical matrix associated with trade, colonial economies, missions and cultural appropriation – represents a major historical remnant of an intercultural past, with both Pan-African, Eastern and Western dimensions’. [https://www.thedesigntrain.com/post/shweshwe-a-national-treasure]

Shweshwe is worn for traditional and formal ceremonies as well as everyday occasions. As James explains, the fabric is ‘worn by Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana and Pedi peoples of Southern Africa especially during wedding ceremonies’; among Xhosa women it is known as ‘Ujamani’. Today it is made into fashionable clothes and accessories for men and women and is loved by quilters for its colours and patterns. Its life-affirming vibrancy and multi-cultured history make it a distinctively delightful fabric to use and enjoy.






Urbanstax has developed a glossary of African fabrics that’s a valuable resource for anyone interested in the stories of fabric in other African countries:

3 thoughts on “A swishy multicultural delight

  1. Those are Splendid fabrics!  How could any one choose

    Sent from my iPhone


    div dir=”ltr”>


    blockquote type=”cite”>


  2. …and so, when the door is shut at the end of the day, they don’t know you are curled on one of the shelves, dreaming….


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s