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A stylish ode to Mama Afrika

30/07/2004 S.A Fashion Week - Day 02 Amanda Laird Cherry Pic: Neo Ntsoma

30/07/2004 S.A Fashion Week - Day 02 Amanda Laird Cherry Pic: Neo Ntsoma

Published Sep 27, 2011


September is heritage month in South Africa and a time to celebrate the lives of those who fought for freedom and democracy. One of those struggle heroes was Albertina Sisulu, the wife of Walter Sisulu.

Mama Afrika as she was affectionately known, passed away at the age of 92 in her home in Linden, Johannesburg, on June 2 this year.

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Da Gama Textiles, manufacturers of original shweshwe, found it fitting to design a Shweshwe skirt panel with an artist’s impression of Ma Sisulu to commemorate the life of this great woman. A-shaped shweshwe skirt panels are printed side by side, with a dotted line between them for easy cutting out. One simply cuts them out and then sews them together to make a skirt.

As DA Gama joint-MD Graham Leonard explained, “Shweshwe is the country’s number one fabric. It is the fabric most worn by South African women – it is the tartan of South Africa. South African women have been wearing it since the 1850s. So, we feel a Ma Sisulu design in shweshwe is appropriate.”

Shweshwe is the cloth of choice for outfits for traditional ceremonies. It is a common thread in the fabric of South African life: worn by kings, politicians and socialites and also by rural women as they gather firewood or fetch water.

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Hundreds of seamstresses throughout the country create garments out of shweshwe fabric.

Yet few people outside the clothing trade know where it comes from or who makes it.

The only place in the world where shweshwe is manufactured is at the Da Gama factory in the rural village of Zwelitsha near King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape.

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Here the cloth is lovingly designed and printed. Each shweshwe design is created in adherence to a large manual – a book containing hundreds of samples of the designs. The designs must be true to the originals – or slight variations of the originals. This is so that shweshwe maintains its iconic, classical, tasteful appearance. The designs of fake shweshwe made in South Africa or imported from China tend to be less structured and ordered and may appear garish.

Da Gama is quite pernickety about this and rightfully so.

Genuine shweshwe, or what Da Gama calls “original” shweshwe, is made from 100% quality cotton. It is always 90cm wide as opposed to other fabrics which are usually 150cm. Original shweshwe has a characteristic scent, from special oils used in the processing and it has a stiff, starchy feel. Once washed, the fabric softens.

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Another way to tell the real shweshwe apart from the fakes is the taste test. Yes, you read right: original shweshwe has a salty taste. Those in the fabric trade sometimes test it on their tongues. Original shweshwe has a stamp on the reverse side of the fabric, with the name Da Gama and trademarks, Toto, Three Cats, Fancy Prints or Three Leopards.

What is now called shweshwe was first worn in South Africa by the Sotho king, Moshoeshoe 1, in about 1840. The cloth, which was brought into the country and only made in the colour indigo, was then called shoeshoe or isishweshwe after the king. Xhosa women gradually added the fabric to their orange blanket clothing.

Later the cloth was printed in bright red and chocolate brown as well. More recently, Da Gama textiles has combined other colours with the indigo, brown and red, including black, green, turquoise, pumpkin, shocking pink and yellow/gold.

Original shweshwe is printed using a discharge printing method that transfers a weak acid solution onto the cloth. Once the fabric has been processed, those places where the acid solution reacted with the dye are seen as the intricate white markings that characterise the original design. This printing method is another unique feature that sets shweshwe apart from other fabric. All shweshwe must be washed before it is sewn up because the fabric shrinks slightly when washed.

Besides the skirt panels, shweshwe is also printed in all-over patterns.

There is a large variety of shweshwe designs. You can take your pick from florals and stripes, to diamond, square- and circular designs.

Some of the floral motifs look like those found on Ming pottery. Shweshwe draws from many influences. The Arabs and Phoenicians traded in indigo coloured cloth before 2400BC, so the designs could even derive from as far back as that. In the 1600s much of the indigo cloth came from India and Holland. Shweshwe designs are also said to have Chinese, Mormon and German influences.

Some of the prints have endearing names used in the fabric trade to identify them according to the different motifs, such as: “earrings”, “snow on the mountain”, “pegs”, “the fly” and “bones”.

South African fashion designers have used shweshwe in their collections, the most recent being Palesa Mokubung, at SA Fashion Week in April, under her label, Mantsho. Bongiwe Walaza incorporated shweshwe into her Winter 2011 collection, not forgetting of course, Durban designer Amanda Laird Cherry, who has included many elements of the fabric in some of her collections. This has helped make the shweshwe fabric and designs even more appealing. - The Star

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