The rich and colourful history of Shweshwe
Written by Lize Becker
Shweshwe – also known as ‘German print’, ‘ujamani’, ‘shoeshoe’ or ‘sis’ – is a vibrant fabric embraced by many different cultures, but quintessentially African. Some say it is named after the swishing sound shweshwe skirts make when walking, while other sources indicate the fabric was first known as seshoeshoe, named after King Moshoeshoe I of the Basotho, who received the fabric in 1840 as a gift from French missionaries, and popularized it throughout his reign.
The vivacious 100% cotton fabric in the variety of colours and patterns that we adore today, was originally only available in indigo and introduced to South Africa via the trading port in the Cape of Good Hope and spread further by colonial settlers throughout the 1800’s. Indigo fabric has Indian, Hungarian, Dutch, German and even Czechoslovakian roots. In 1992, South African textile company Da Gama bought trademark rights from a United Kingdom company to produce the heavy cotton designs locally. It imported large patterned copper rollers that were used to impress designs on the material, which was washed with weak acid to produce its intricate white patterns. Da Gama Shweshwe still has the iconic starchy finish which was originally used to prevent the fabric from damage during long sea voyages from Europe. Once washed the starchy stiffness is removed, leaving a soft cotton fabric.
Typically used in traditional and rural African ceremonies, Shweshwe has in recent years received a modern fashion and style injection, ensuring a continuous and growing popularity amongst young and old. Whatever the historical origin, at Shwezu we simply adore shweshwe – the sound, the smell, the feel, and most of all the colours and graphic patterns. From everyday apparel to bridal attire, to contemporary shoes and accessories – isn’t it just wonderful how it embraces South African heritage and so many diverse culture groups?