Known as isishweshwe, shweshwe, or shoeshoe, this popular fabric here, now produced most famously in South Africa by De Gama Textiles, has a history in South Africa that reaches back to the mid 17th-century and highlights the connections between global exchange, colonialism, textile production, and development.
A spotty timeline of shweshwe:
- 1652: indigo cloth arrives at the seaport established in the Western Cape.
- 1850s: German Protestant Settlers bring printed indigo fabric known as German or Jeruman print with them to South Africa. The cloth was popular with workers in Central Europe because of its relative inexpensiveness.
- 19th Century: Indigo cloth imported primarily from India and Holland.
- 1890 German factory develops a synthetic indigo dye still in use today.
- 1930s: Imports of indigo cloth predominately come from Lancashire at this point - the Three Cats brand comes out of Manchester. The fabric is used for garments in South Africa that are worn by slaves, Khoisan, Sotho, Xhosa, and Voortrekker women.
- 1940s: French missionaries present King Moshoeshoe I of Lesotho of printed indigo cloth. This is one of the "origin" stories for how the fabric got its name of "shoe shoe." The other origin story attributes the name to the Xhosa name from the swishing sound it makes when the wearer walks.
- 1982: Production of shweshwe begins in South Africa when UK company Tootal invests in De Gama Textiles, trademarking their version "Three Leopards," which was their version of Manchester's "Three Cats." Two new colors, red and brown are added using the same design prints.
-1992: De Gama Textiles purchased the sole rights to own and print the Three Cats range of designs. It still produces the original German print.
The process has remained the same since the 19th century. First, cotton fabric is woven (plain weave) to a width of 90cm. The fabric is dyed with an indigo paste (originally natural, now synthetic) and a discharge agent is applied with a copper roller (also with 90cm widths) to remove the indigo and reveal a pattern. When De Gama purchased the exclusive rights to produce the fabric, the copper rollers were shipped over from Manchester. The designs were often intricate small series of dots or geometric motifs. Starch is applied to the fabric - originally used to preserve it on the voyages from the UK to SA.
Because of the starch used, genuine shweshwe has a characteristic stiff hand upon purchase and a pleasant oily smell. After you purchase the fabric, you wash it before your begin sewing with it. Like indigo denim, the fabric will remain relatively stiff and gradually soften with each wash, eventually achieving a buttery hand but retaining its strength. In the picture above, I've shown some samples I have already purchased: the primary example in the is a genuine piece produced by De Gama in one of the Three Cats designs. The cost for a little over a meter (I purchased it by the amount of panels, as much of the shweshwe is printed with line guides, where four or five panels = an A-line skirt since that is one of the most popular garments made from it) was R30 (a little over $5 US). The two patterns cutting across the top left of the photograph are actually imitations made from cheaper cotton and a standard cotton printing technique. These two prints cost only R5 (less than $1 US) per meter, but will likely fade quickly upon repeated wear. I suspect I will use these second two for quilting projects.
The history of textile production and exchange is also the history of the industrial revolution and global exchange. Economist Petra Rivoli, among others, identifies massive textile production as the key to first Britain and then the United States' industrial and economic development and even argues that Japan's textile production 100 years after the United States (in the early to mid 20th century) contributed to its development as an economic "powerhouse." As much as my research interests align with textile production and conceptions of economic development, I'm reticent to believe this direct correlation and the simple causality it suggests is as direct as Rivoli argues. For example, the shift back to textile production in India in the 1940s forward hasn't necessarily translated into massive industrial development. Over the past twenty years, cotton growth in the Eastern Cape here in South Africa, has helped the country begin to develop its own substantive textile industry.
There have also been fascinating connections made between the development of synthetic dyes in Germany and economic development (in particular in the work of sociologist Andrew Pickering). My friend C, a chemist and researcher at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, has agreed to fill in the gaps of my knowledge and provide some additional background on indigo - he will post it in the comments section.