The most distinctive South African textile is Shweshwe. It was previously called German print because it was brought to Africa by German immigrants in the 1800s. Originally only in blue, this indigo-dyed fabric is now called the denim of South Africa and is available in many colours.The largest producer of shweshwe is the Three Cats brand, produced by Da Gama Textiles in the Zwelitsha township outside King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. It is printed onto cotton, which is grown locally, also in the Eastern Cape.
I was told when I was young that it was called Shweshwe because of the sound the fabric made when you moved, but later learned that it was named after King Moshweshwe of Swaziland who was given the fabric by French missionaries. I prefer the onomatopoeic explanation!
When new this cloth is fairly stiff, with a very distinctive smell which brings back so many happy memories. The stiffness is due to starch having been applied to the fabric as a protective measure against damp during the long sea voyage to Africa, and this has been retained as a feature. After washing, shweshwe becomes super-soft and fades slightly. It used to be used in traditional marriage clothing. I had jackets and a bag made in blue Shweshwe by a general dealer’s wife in my small town in the Eastern Cape, but these days this cloth is used in glorious creations by contemporary designers.
Africa is a huge continent and there are so many different types of traditional clothing and textiles. In Stockholm, shops showcasing African items often only feature products from north Africa. I think this leads to the misconception that all African textiles are the same, or similar.