History of the 'original' Shweshwe Fabric

The presence of indigo cloth in South Africa has a long and complex history. Its roots probably extend as far back as early Arab and Phoenician trade along the eastern seaboard before 2400BC. The arrival of indigo cloth emerged after the 1652 establishment of a seaport at the Cape of Good Hope. Slaves, soldiers, Khoi-san, and Voortrekker women were clothed in indigo, and there is also evidence of floral printed indigo. Much of the early indigo cloth at the Cape was from India and Holland. Natural indigo dye was obtained from the Leguminous Genus, Indigofera plant. During the 18th-19th century European textile manufacturers developed a block and discharge printing style on indigo cotton fabric. In 1862 a German chemist developed synthetic indigo. In the 18th century Discharge printed indigo was manufactured and printed in Czechoslovakia and Hungary by Gustav Deutsch, and much of this cloth entered the South African market. In the 1930s he emigrated to Britain and established a factory in Lancashire. This factory, machinery and expertise was later purchased by Blue Printers Ltd, in Wigan. Such was the demand for this fabric that eventually there were four companies producing this print style, the largest being Spruce Manufacturing who produced the most popular brand name, Three Cats, which was exported to South Africa.

In the early 1840s French missionaries presented Moshoeshoe 1 with a gift of indigo printed cloth, establishing a cloth preference that grew during the 19th century, and still prevails today, hence the term shoeshoe or isishweshwe. Further, German settlers to the Eastern Cape in 1858 often elected to wear the Blue Print that was widely available as a trade cloth and echoed the Blaudruk that they were familiar with in Germany. Xhosa women gradually added what they termed Ujamani to their red blanket clothing. The mission-educated African women absorbed European clothing styles enjoying the blue hue the indigo gave their skin.

The production of Indigo Discharge Printed Fabric in South Africa started in 1982 when Tootal (a UK based company) invested in Da Gama Textiles. Blue Print was then produced under the Trade Mark of Three Leopards, the South African version of the Three Cats trademark. Tootal also introduced a range named Toto, as well as two new colour ways – a rich chocolate brown and a vibrant red. In 1992 Da Gama purchased the sole rights to own and print the branded Three Cats range of designs, and had all the copper rollers shipped out to the Zwelitsha plant.


Three Cats Shweshwe produced by da Gama, South Africa.

To date Da Gama Textiles still produces the original ‘German Print’, ‘Ujamani’ or ‘Shweshwe’ at the Zwelitsha factory in the Eastern Cape. The process is still done traditionally whereby fabric is passed under copper rollers which have patterns etched on the surface, allowing the transfer of a weak discharge solution onto the fabric. Subsequent unique finishing processes create the distinctively intricate all-over prints and beautiful panels.

The common trademarks or brands, Three Cats, Three Leopards, and Toto 6 Star are authenticated by a backstamp on the fabric. Users are skilled at verifying the fabric’s authenticity by touch, smell, and taste to ensure they are purchasing the genuine fabric and not reproduction or fake cloth. The indigo also fades with washing in a similar manner to denim. The Three Cats range is sourced from a closed library of designs whereas the Three Leopards range introduces new designs on a regular basis. Isishweshwe has a distinctive prewash stiffness and smell: the answer lies in its production and history, when during the long sea voyage from the UK to South Africa, starch was used to preserve the fabric from the elements and gave it a characteristic stiffness. After washing, the stiffness disappears to leave behind a beautiful soft cotton fabric.

Authenticity Three Cats trademark found on the reverse side of all

'original' Shweshwe fabrics.

The typical use of the fabric is for traditional ceremonies in the rural areas, thus ensuring a constant demand for this particular fabric. In certain cases, special designs are produced for important occasions such as royal birthdays and national festivals. Today this fabric has become fashionable beyond its traditional sphere of usage, and praise must go to our young South African designers for their renewed interest in this traditional national heritage. (extracted and courtesy of da Gama Textiles)

Authentic Shweshwe fabrics are printed in 90 cm widths and are recognised by its uniquely starched texture and smell; with the Three Cats trademark 'backstamp' printed onto the reverse solid colour side of the fabric.

Contemporary Shweshwe ‘South African cloth’ comes in an exciting array of vibrant colours, including the original indigo colour, and in a multitude of patterns making it very popular with dressmakers which has been seen on the catwalks of Paris. A range of homewares are also produced using this unique 'heritage' material.


Examples of modern Shweshwe fabric samples