Shweshwe (~Sh-weh-Sh-weh) is a beautiful, strong cotton fabric, famed for its intricate patterns, traditional indigo color, and rich in history. It is the Xhosa name given to a range of 100% cotton fabric that is now printed exclusively in South Africa.
As a traveler, South Africa struck a chord in me – the resilience of its people, the majestic landscape and the deep pride in upholding traditions. As a designer, I am inspired when art and tradition intertwine and become representative of a culture. It seemed essential to include it into the CALZICO collection, as it perfectly represents a global connection, and is a tribute to South African artisans and their culture.
The fabric is an integral part of South Africa’s history, though its roots can be traced back to 2400BC, when Arabs and Phoenicians traded it. According to the history books, the indigo cloth first arrived in South Africa around 1652, when a seaport was established at the Cape of Good Hope. Much of the indigo cloth was originally from India and Holland, however it really took off in South Africa when German settlers introduced it to the Xhosa people in the mid-1800s.
How the fabric is made and why is an interesting story…
The original creators of the fabric prepared it for long sea voyages to South Africa by coating it heavily in starch to protect it from the elements. When it would arrive at its destination, it had a distinctive smell and characteristic stiffness from the preparation methods, however once washed, the stiffness would diminish and the beautiful soft cotton material beneath is exposed.
Traditionally, the color of Shweshwe was indigo, achieved using the Indigofera Tinctoria plant. Over time, the indigo color fades in a manner similar to that of denim.
The intricate designs are still created in a traditional manner, where the fabric is fed through rollers that have patterns imprinted on them. A weak acid solution, when fed into the fabric, reveals the unique white patterns.
Today, Shweshwe is an important sustainable source of income for the artisans who make it. Young and modern South African designers have reignited interest in the material, and today it can be found in many styles and colors – it’s even hit the catwalks in Paris – however it will usually be found where it truly belongs: at traditional ceremonies and national festivals where South Africans wear it with pride.