The cloth of kings

Published Nov 6, 2015


Archbishop Denis Hurley will get his own shweshwe on Monday, when the new centre, built in the apartheid hero’s name, celebrates its opening and his birthday with a centenary concert.

The centre is committed to working with the poor, homeless, hungry, sick, unemployed and refugees of all faiths to bring about change in the inner city.

The event, a concert by the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra, will be held at the Emmanuel Cathedral in the heart of Durban, at 7pm.

It draws attention to the role of the fabric, in local culture.

Shweshwe dates back many centuries and was first known as indigo, after the Indigofera plant from which it drew its colour.

When French missionaries presented Lesotho’s King, Moshoeshoe I with indigo printed cloth in the 1840s, they established a “trend” so long-standing it became tradition.

The trade cloth, popular around the world at that point in history, became known as shoeshoe (after the king) and later as shweshwe.

In the 1850s, German settlers to the Eastern Cape often elected to wear the widely available cloth as it echoed the Blaudruk (Blue Print) that they were familiar with in Germany.

The Xhosa women, influenced by the missionaries, absorbed European clothing styles, and they gradually added what they termed Ujamani to their red blanket clothing.

It soon became popular for special occasions such as weddings and birthdays and remains so to this day.

While its global popularity faded in other parts of the world over the centuries, the local tribes who adopted the fabric as a customary cloth have made it their own.

Therefore to many, shweshwe is considered African.

This is certainly true of its manufacture.

Production began in the Eastern Cape in 1982 when a UK company invested in Da Gama Textiles.

They bought the sole rights and as far as we know, are the only original shweshwe manufacturers worldwide.

Raymond Perrier, director at the Denis Hurley Centre (a major new landmark building in the middle of Durban located between Emmanuel Cathedral, the Grey Street Mosque and Victoria Street Market) said the idea to print the archbishop’s portraits on to shweshwe was raised by one of their committee members, who said centenaries of important figures in the Zulu community, from which she comes, was celebrated in this way.

The cloth could then be made into traditional attire, skirts, dresses, bags for the centre’s purpose, seat cushions.

What’s interesting is that Da Gama aren’t responsible for all the commemorative fabrics.

Helen Bester at Da Gama said: “With permission we have printed images of: Nelson Mandela, Albertina ‘Ma’ Sisulu, King Letsie of Lesotho and most recently Hurley. There are many shweshwe imitations in the market place.

“These imports are entering the country continuously both in fabric form and as made-up garments.

“This ‘fong kong’ is generally stiffer fabric that does not wash soft and the designs are generally paste white copies that wash out with time.”

The irony of South African stalwarts faces printed on South African fabric, made in China, is not lost on Bester, who says the industry is simply too difficult to police.

“Customs officers can’t always identify original shweshwe from fake varieties and there cannot be a ban, as often the fake fabric is already made up into products such as items of clothing or accessories.”

She says those looking for shweshwe should always look out for the THREE CATS backstamp before purchasing.

It is authentic, of a superior quality and is a proudly South African business, creating local jobs.

The Sewing for Africa project group at the Hurley Centre are selling their original red shweshwe, which has early and late images of the archbishop printed on it, for R80 a metre.

The group are also available for commissions, having made dressing gowns for boutique hotels, school uniforms for refugee children and liturgical dresses.

Designer Julia Buttery, who has been working with the group of volunteers, said: “These are hard-working women acquiring a job skill. I’ve been in collaboration with them to create contemporary women’s clothing in shweshwe and for overseas markets.”

If you would like to support two proudly local businesses or find out more, call 031 301 2240 or email [email protected]


History of isishweshwe

The presence of indigo cloth in South Africa has a long and complex history. Its roots extend as far back as early Arab and Phonecian trade along the eastern seaboard before 2400BC. The arrival of the indigo cloth emerged after the 1652 establishment of a seaport at the Cape of Good Hope.

Slaves, soldiers, Khoi-San and Voortrekker women were clothed in indigo, and there is also evidence of floral printed indigo. Much of the early indigo cloth at the Cape was from India and Holland.

Natural indigo dye was obtained from the Leguminous Genus, Indigofera plant.

During the 18th and 19th century, European textile manufacturers developed a block and discharge printing style on indigo cotton fabric.

In 1862, a German chemist developed synthetic indigo. In the 18th century, Discharge printed indigo was manufactured and printed in Czechoslovakia and Hungary by Gustav Deutsch, and much of this cloth then entered the South African market.

In the 1930s, he emigrated to Britain and established a factory in Lancashire. This factory, machinery and expertise was later purchased by Blue Printers Ltd in Wigan.

Four companies produced this print style, the largest being Spruce Manufacturing which produced the most popular brand name, Three Cats, which was exported to South Africa.

The production of Indigo Discharge Printed Fabric in South Africa started in 1982 when Tootal (a UK based company) invested in Da Gama Textiles.

Blue Print was then produced under the Trade Mark of Three Leopards, the South African version of the Three Cats trademark.

Tootal also introduced a range named Toto, as well as two new colour ways – a rich chocolate brown and a vibrant red.

In 1992, Da Gama bought the sole rights to own and print the branded Three Cats range of designs, and had all the copper rollers shipped out to the Zwelitsha plant.

To date, Da Gama Textiles still produces the original “German Print” which is known by different names to different tribes.

It is said that it was gifted to Lesotho’s King Moshoeshoe I by French missionaries in the 1840s and therefore become known locally as shoeshoe and later shweshwe.

Dialects differ today with the Sothos calling it seshweshwe, the Zulu’s calling it isishweshwe and the Xhosa’s Ujamani.

However, that same fabric made in the traditional manner, whereby a weak acid solution is fed on to the fabric, bleaching out the distinctive white designs, only comes from one place – the Zwelitsha factory in the Eastern Cape.

The trademark, Three Cats, is authenticated by a backstamp on the fabric.

Users are skilled at verifying the fabric’s authenticity by touch, smell and taste to ensure that they are purchasing the genuine fabric and not reproduction or fake cloth. The indigo also fades with washing in a similar manner to denim.

The Three Cats range is sourced from a closed library of designs.

Shweshwe has a distinctive prewash stiffness and smell: the answer lies in its production and history, when during the long sea voyage from the UK to South Africa, starch was used to preserve the fabric from the elements and gave it a characteristic stiffness. After washing, the stiffness disappears to leave behind a beautiful soft cotton fabric. The typical use of the fabric is for traditional ceremonies in the rural areas, thus ensuring a constant demand for this particular fabric.

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 sphere of usage, with young South African designers often showing interest in this bit of national heritage.

The fabric is marketed to the wholesale and retail sectors throughout South Africa, who ensure sustainability by creating employment opportunities for people in the urban areas.

Da Gama Textiles is perhaps the only known producer of traditional Indigo Dyed Discharge Printed Fabric in the world. – Edited text provided by Da Gama Textiles

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