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IsiShweshwe: cut from a different cloth

Published Mar 28, 2013


Cape Town - IsiShweshwe is synonymous with traditional African clothing. But what many don’t know is that this ethnic-print cotton fabric has its roots in the East.

An exhibition at the Iziko Slave Lodge details the history and evolution of isiShweshwe.

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Curator in social history collections Wieke van Delen says isiShweshwe is part of the southern African identity and the isiShweshwe Story: Material Women showcases costumes used in rural cultural practices – a fully-dressed makoti (new bride), designer fashion garments (corsets and ball gown), daily wear, and accessories. The material is also used for upholstery.

A research collection of garments and images, donated by art historian and lecturer Dr Juliette Leeb-du Toit, is on display for the first time. And garments by top designers contemporary Amanda Laird-Cherry and Bongiwe Walaza form part of the collection.

Laird-Cherry has been described as an artist who tells stories with cloth and thread, while the internationally acclaimed Walaza has recently worked closely with Da Gama Textiles, helping to popularise isiShweshwe.

Contributors to the Iziko exhibition include Cape Town fashion designers Luiz Delaja, Louis Klopper and Cheryl Arthur. Van Delen says the designers’ work will be rotated every three months.

The exhibition reflects the diverse nature and geographical positioning of the fabric. Although many of us have come to know the fabric as traditionally African, the printed material originated in India. The fabric and design was called Indienne.

In the 17th century, textile makers in Europe simplified the colourful Indian resist-printed cottons to the use of indigo blue. During the 19th century, factories, mainly in Germany and Britain, began the mass production of the sturdy cotton blue print with a technique of discharge-printing. It was village and later factory-produced European blue-printed cottons that reached the Eastern Cape, Kwazulu-Natal and other regions of southern Africa.

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We know it as isiShweshwe, but in Europe it’s called blauwdruk.

The exhibition contains an Indienne dress made in 1775. There are also kappies worn by Afrikaners, made in the 1900s. Van Delen says the kappies were often referred to as blou sis or Duitse sis.

The exhibition reveals how the identities of wearers of isiShweshwe have changed over the years, and are still changing.

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Isishweshwe was adopted as “blue print” in South Africa more than 150 years ago. Introduced by missionaries, traders, and settlers, it was adapted and incorporated into traditional dress and African rural customs, mainly by women.

Although the fabric is not unique to specific cultures, the designs and accessories are.

It was also worn by Dutch/Afrikaans-speaking women in the rural areas of the Transvaal and Free State and later adopted to show solidarity with the apartheid struggle by white women.

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In recent decades it has emerged on the international fashion circuit, presented by well known South Africa haute couturiers. More recently it has become a form of everyday African dress in the town and country, worn by working-class and middle-class women. It is also increasingly being worn by South African men in a fashion context. Many European countries still make use of the blue and white printed fabric.

Today, the real isiShweshwe is made only at Da Gama Textiles in Zwelitsha near King William’s Town – and increasingly in a range of bright, fashionable colours. Cheaper imitations are being made locally and in the East, although purists will always choose “real” isiShweshwe, which is recognised by its smell, texture and the distinctive logos printed on the reverse of the fabric.

The factory has borrowed equipment used to make the prints. Three rolls of copper cylinders are plated with chrome, then the designs are etched into the chrome and pre-dyed fabric rolled over it. After a lengthy process, the result is the isiShweshwe print.

The exhibition opened on February 23 and will run until February 2014. During this time, workshops, screenings and discussion panels will be held.

The exhibition is presented and curated by Iziko Social History and Juliette Leeb-du Toit, with support and sponsorship of the Cape Town Fashion Council, Consulate General of Germany in Cape Town, Da Gama Textiles, and The National Heritage Council. - Cape Argus

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