Shweshwe aka shoeshoe aka isishweshwe is a printed cotton fabric that is manufactured in South Africa. The formal name for shweshwe is ‘Indigo-dyed discharge printed fabric’.
It is a trademarked fabric and is manufactured by Da Gama Textiles in the Zwelitsha township outside King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. It is printed on cotton which is grown locally also in the Eastern Cape.
How it is made
Shweshwe is produced whereby cotton fabric is fed through copper rollers which have patterns etched into them. A weak acid solution is fed onto the fabric, bleaching out the distinctive intricate white designs.
Where does the name shweshwe come from?
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 the for 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.
A brief history of the fabric
- was originally only available in blue thus known as ‘indigo cloth’.
- brought to South Africa in the mid-1800s by German immigrants so also known as ‘German Print’
- once printed in Czechoslovakia and Hungary then in England in the 1930s.
- worn by South African women since the 1800s
We understand that the fabric is used in traditional ceremonies in rural areas and worn by Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana and Pedi peoples of Southern Africa especially during wedding ceremonies as bridal gowns, bridesmaids dresses and often the groom can be seen in a matching outfit!
Photo: Bongiwe Walaza Designs
How to know you have the real deal
The original shweshwe fabric has distinct characteristics in smell, touch and taste. So you might now want to taste it but if you did, it does have a salty taste. It also has a distinct smell and is quite stiff until washed. It is advised that you ALWAYS wash the fabric before sewing as this removes the starch and stiffness of the fabric. You will also find that there is a branded manufacturer’s stamp on the reverse of the fabric.
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.
Another thing you should know about the fabric is that it is 36 inches (90 cm) wide unlike other standard width fabrics which are 45 or 60 inches.
Fabric Information and Care:
- 100% Cotton
- Width- 36 inches (90 cm)
- Weight- 158 g (after washing)
- Wash at 40 degress
- Do not bleach
- Wash with similar colours
Who makes shweshwe
The Three Cats brand produced by the company Da Gama is currently the largest producer of shweshwe. They are based in the Eastern Cape of South Africa in village called Zwelitsha near King William’s Town.
The designs usually consist of distinct geometric patterns usually with no more than 3 to 4 colours. Nevertheless, you will still find some more abstract designs and even florals. On seeing the Lion Head shweshwe I fell in love. It is one of my clear favourites.
Limited designs are also released to commemorate certain events or to recognise people. For example, you might have come across the Nelson Mandela shweshwe. It is from the ‘Madiba’ range by Da Gama to celebrate the life of the former president of South Africa.
Photo: Made by Nomes
As mentioned before, shweshwe originally came in the indigo colour range. However, new colourways have been introduced over time. With hot pinks, sunny oranges and yummy greens and more now available.
Look What They Made with Shweshwe
Shweshwe fabric is very popular with quilters especially in north America. The regular patterns, 100% cotton and small motifs lend the fabric to a huge array of quilting projects. Nevertheless, we have come across some absolutely beautiful pieces made by some great designers. Here are some of our finds.
Photo: Amanda Laird Cherry
Photo: Neo Sefatsa- Upendo Pictures
Photo: Izaura Creations on Instagram
Photo: Nomi Handmade on instagram
Creating with Shweshwe
Want to get your hands on some shweshwe to get creative with? Look no further. We have a range in stock which we continue to add to. You can purchase our shweshwe by the metre.
If you are looking for smaller quantities form small projects or quilts, you can check out our fat quarters.
Please share your creations or shweshwe finds with us. We would love to hear from you!