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Named after 19th Century Sotho King, Moshoeshoe 1, shweshwe is the quintessential fabric of South Africa, synonymous with South African textiles and traditional wear.
In Johannesburg’s fashion district one can find shweshwe in rolls, lining the shelves of fabric stores or as ready-to-wear garments hanging in one of the many shops you may wander into.
Wendy Larsen, a textiles expert with a Masters in Sustainable Fashion Design and Textiles, explains that the fabric is crafted using “plain 100% cotton calico”. The cotton is woven and then finished with a printing process. The printing process is an acid discharge, creating the “typical black and white prints on a plain base colour, usually blue, red or brown”. The fabric’s intricate patterns are permanently imprinted onto the material, allowing it to weather wears and washes.
Shweshwe has a wax-like texture that is sturdy but soft to the touch. A defining feature is the all-over prints, featuring different designs that range from simple to intricate geometric patterns.
Making a garment using shweshwe can be costly. A blue dress designed by renowned fashion designer, Bongiwe Walaza’s studio, required about 13 metres of fabric to create. The material cost R55 a metre at Fashion Distribution Wholesalers at the time.
Other costs included the design, patterns, and labour involved in the manufacturing process. This made up the R3500 all-inclusive cost of the blue dress.
The original copper rollers used to print the fabric were brought to South Africa, says Larsen, allowing for its authentic local production. The original fabric makes its way to the streets of Johannesburg CBD’s from the Eastern Cape, where it is produced by the only original makers of shweshwe (since 1992), Da Gama Textiles, founded in 1948.
The material makeup of textiles determines not only how they feel, but also how they function. Shweshwe is a versatile fabric, used to make dresses, pants, and shirts. Once purchased, the stiff texture is softened when washed of its starch, which contributes to the fabric’s distinct smell (similar to freshly-cut potatoes). Washing also shrinks the material
by a few centimetres. Traditionally, the starch was used as a means of preservation. Shweshwe fabric needed to be preserved historically as it reached South African shores by ship. The material, formerly known as ‘indigo cloth’, was brought to South Africa in the 1800s by European settlers.
“It found popularity and became synonymous with Sotho attire,” Larsen says. Xhosa women then incorporated the material into their traditional wear. This was the start of the traditional shweshwe colours being brown, blue and red. The colours have since expanded to include vivid shades of gold, pink, green and turquoise. Although traditionally used by Sotho and Xhosa people, the material’s reach has broadened.
Agnes Madi, a sales assistant at a fabric store on Pritchard Street, says people in Lesotho still wear shweshwe on an everyday basis. South Africans, however, “use it mostly for special occasions”.
The Johannesburg CBD is host to an “eclectic and cosmopolitan mix of people” keeping the fabric in use, explains Larsen.
Through the diversity of nationalities and cultures, as well as the rise in black consciousness, traditional clothing has re-emerged in contemporary styles. Distinctly African fashion in both design and material are becoming increasingly popular. Modiba explains that clients seek fashion with an ‘African feel’ that is not only a means of dress but as something that is an indicator who the wearer is. This emerging identity is thus also inclusive of Western-inspired silhouettes that were introduced some years ago. It includes jackets, bags, and hats which are a deviation from traditional uses.
“There aren’t really any other iconic types of fabrics that are really associated in the way shweshwe is,” says Larsen. It has become synonymous with South African culture and heritage. Larsen adds that “although still worn as traditional/cultural attire by the Xhosa and Sotho, many people of varied cultural groups and races wear it in many different ways.” Larsen believes that one of the reasons for the adoption of shweshwe as a widely used traditional fabric is that it is “less virtually symbolic of a particular culture”, as people are more willing to wear something that carries “subtle meaning”. There is an appreciation for the quality and style that shweshwe holds.
Now used multi-culturally, there is no apparent fear or anger of how one uses the material. Shweshwe is a commodity in all aspects of the fashion industry. Whether used in its traditional sense by retailers, made-to-order garments by individuals or in conceptual ways by designers, there is no apparent concern of appropriation by the people who work in Johannesburg’s fashion district. Shweshwe has a complex history and thus does not truly belonging to any one person or group.
Although styles have become more contemporary, the looks created with shweshwe are largely still conservative, which may explain its ease of use. Modern silhouettes remain respectful, however, shweshwe remains fashionable and is increasingly so with the youth, especially in African style sub-cultures. The fabric has the transformative power of being applicable to high fashion on the runway, commercial in everyday clothing and also traditional wear. New styles of prints and colours of shweshwe are introduced, although they are kept to minor variations of the original designs. This ensures that it remains classic and distinct, yet still commercially viable.
South Africa once boasted a booming textile industry, producing “types of fabrics produced locally which were exported as high-quality products”, says Larsen. The industry suffered a downturn towards the late 1980s, resulting in a collapse of the industry. Johannesburg’s fashion district now operates on a much smaller scale and almost completely informally.
The collapse was, in part, due to the emergence of cheap Asian imports.
Among the Asian imports available, is imitation shweshwe. The cost of this fabric is 20% cheaper than the original. Buyers of shweshwe often look for the original as they are brand loyal and knowledgeable about the differences that set the material apart. Imitation shweshwe has a width of 150cm whereas the original is 90cm. It lacks the vibrancy of colour and signature starchy feel. Furthermore, the original is marked with the Da Gama “Three Cats” logo that is printed on the back and is made up of 100% cotton. The imitation variety is often composed of cotton blends, such as polycotton.