Mdantsane is a unique, vibrating, eclectic, African place. Follow us on a pilgrimage to Mdantsane to discover the street culture, fashion, food, people, music, homes, taverns, humor, businesses, history and what's hot in the second biggest township in South-Africa, located close to the city of East London in the Province of the Eastern Cape. Join us on this journey while we capture the spirit of this amazing place for you in the here and in the now. We are going to introduce you to many individuals, artists, musicians, groups and associations.
They are the HEROES OF DAILY LIFE. They are the people who create, innovate and improve their life and their stories deserve to be told. This is a place for only good and positive stories of humanity, that will send out a message of courage, endurance and strength to the world through their pictures and words.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The ShweShwe - Pride Of The Eastern Cape

The shweshwe has been around in South Africa for a long time. The shweshwe fabric, locally produced in the Eastern Cape province is something to be proud of. 
Worn proudly by South African women of all color, it is a part of South African culture and heritage. Like many other products, that can be found on the African continent, it arrived there through colonial trade relations, that were established many years back. The shweshwe's character and style has changed over the years under African influence.

ShweShwe - Proudly worn by South African women of all color

Originally the indigo cloth, as it is called as well was a rather traditional type of fabric. The typical use for the fabric was for traditional ceremonies in the rural areas of South Africa, predominantly in the Eastern Cape. 
This ensured a constant demand for the fabric and and assured its survival through the years. In the beginning this product was not affected by the laws and subtle forces of fashion.

Special designs and patterns were created for occasions like birthdays of royalties, marriages and festivals. Similar to the the African Wax, the shweshwe fabric has a story to tell about the one who wears it.

Special designs for special occasions in South Africa - in this picture the pattern shows the traditional hat of Swaziland 
However, the shweshwe has long claimed the catwalks of the international fashion scene. African designers have created exciting and extravagant couture representing the spirit of 21st century South Africa. Today we are looking into the history of this unique fabric

The shweshwe was originally a rather traditional type of fabric

The history of the shweshwe is a very exciting one and it all started with a gift from nature - the indigo plant. Indigofera tinctoria bears the common name True indigo.

Indigoferes tinctoria - the true indigo
The Arab and Phoenician trade knew about the indigo plant as early as 2400 BC. Yes that is amazing! But the indigo cloth arrived in South Africa only after a sea port was established at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. The slave trade was in full swing. And the indigo cloth left its mark on many segments of the population.
The slaves were dressed in indigo clothes. The women of the Voortrekkers also had their dresses made from this fabric and to some extent the fabric was used by the Khoi-San people as well who inhabited the Cape. Even soldiers wore shirts made from indigo cloth

It all started with a gift from nature - The Indigo Plant

Much of the indigo cloth of that time was shipped from Holland and from India to the Cape of Good Hope. The cloth was either a simple deep blue or it had small sized patterns printed on. 
In some of our museums, the King Williams Town Museum and The Reinet House in Graaff Reinet are two to name here, settler's women dresses are exhibited, that proof that there were already floral patterns in circulation at the time.    

More modern retro orientated pattern were developed only at a later stage on

Then, during the 18th and 19th centuries European Textile manufacturers developed a block and discharge printing style for indigo cotton fabric. In 1962 a German chemist developed a synthetic indigo color.
Indigo dye is an organic compound with a distinctive blue color. Historically, indigo was a natural substance extracted from plants. Blue dyes were once rare and achieved high prices on the market.

Today it is hardly impossible to buy naturally dyed indigo fabric. Nearly all indigo dye produced today — several thousand tons each year — is synthetic. The color resembles the blue of blue jeans.

 In the 18th century discharge printed fabric was manufactured in Czechoslovakia and Hungary by Gustav Deutsch and was exported to the African market. Before the second World War started Gustav Deustch left Germany and set up a factory in Lancashire in the UK. The factory, machinery and the expertise was later purchased by a company called Blue Printers Ltd. in Wigan.
The demand for the indigo cloth had grown so much that at one time there were four companies producing this type of fabric.
The largest of these four created a brand name, that is known nearly by everyone who loves shweshwe in South Africa - THE THREE CATS.

Three Cats has been exporting its fabrics for several decades to South Africa.

The Three Cats, one of South Africa's most famous shweshwe trade labels

SO far so good but how did the indigo cotton came to his South African name shweshwe?

There was once a great African king named Moshoeshoe.
Moshoeshoe was born in what is called to day Lesotho. He was born in 1786 at Menkhoaneng and died in 1870.
Moshoeshoe was the son of Mokhachane, a minor chief of the Bamokoteli sub-clan. During his youth, he was very brave and once organised a cattle raid against Ramonaheng and captured several herds. As was the tradition, he composed a poem praising himself. He said he was "like a razor which has shaved all Ramonaheng's beards", referring to his successful raid.
In Sesotho language, a razor makes a "shoe...shoe..." sound, and after that he was affectionately called Moshoeshoe: "the shaver".

He also referred himself as the person of Kali, thus showed that he was a descendant of the Great Kali or Monaheng who is said to be the ancestor of most Bakoena people in Lesotho with the exception of the senior Bamolibeli.
In his early childhood, he helped his father gain power over some other smaller clans. At the age of 34 Moshoeshoe formed his own clan and became a chief. He and his followers settled at the Butha-Buthe Mountain.

Moshoeshoe - alias Mshweshwe

He was also referred to as Mshweshwe

In the early 1840's Moshoeshoe received from French missionaries a piece of indigo cloth as a gift. The French missionaries had laid the foundation of a long passion of the African people for this type of fabric. This preference for the indigo print prevailed during the entire 19th century until today. 

In the Xhosa language the indigo print was termed Ujamani.

In the 19th century the indigo was available throughout the Eastern Cape as a trade cloth and German settler women also loved to dress themselves in this type of fabric because it resembled the " Blaudruck" (blue print), a fabric that was popular in Germany at the time.   

A beautiful shweshwe panel in yellow and brown color combination

The local production of shweshwe in South Africa started in 1982 when Da Gama textiles, a factory situated at the entrance to Mdantsane received an investment from the UK based company Tootal. The blue print was produce then under the name of The Three Leopards which was the South African version of the three cats. It was then that Tootal introduced also a new range "Toto"and two new colors, brown and red. 

Ten years in 1982 later Da Gama purchased the sole rights to the Three Cats range.

Red was introduce by a UK based company Tootal

Da Gama Textiles still produces the original German print, Shweshwe or Ujamani. at a factory in Zwelitsha in the Eastern Cape.
The production of this fabric is done by feeding the cloth through copper rollers which have patterns and designs etched on the surface, allowing a week acid solution to flow into the fabric, bleaching out the distinctive white designs. 

The shweshwe found other ways of use and made its entrance into the world of design and interior decorating

The shweshwe can be easily identified for its panels and an intricate overall design

The shweshwe has a very distinct smell and pre-wash. The reason for this can be found in its history. During the several weeks long voyage from England to South Africa, starch was used to protect the fabric from the elements and the salt of the sea and gave it the characteristic stiffness it still has today.
When the shweshwe is washed it looses all stiffness and turns into a soft cotton cloth. The colors do wash out with time.

The common trade marks of the shweshwe are today, the three cats, the three leopards and and Toto 6 Star. It is easy to identify if they are authentic and original shweshwe because they are all stamped on the back.

A rich chocolate brown and more pattern than you can think of

And one is more beautiful than the other!
Your choice now!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this, I've wondered the origins of this fabric and love knowing more given its beauty.



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