The most distinctive South African textile is Shweshwe. I grew up with the smell and sound of the stiff fabric (usually in blue or brown), and fell in love with how soft and faded it becomes with wear. It truly is the denim of South Africa.

Shweshwe 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.

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.

Unfortunately, there is now international demand for this gorgeous fabric and there are fakes coming in from China. The genuine product – made by Da Gama/Three Cats can be recognised by feel, smell, taste, sound, a solid colour from dyeing and trademark logos on the reverse side of the fabric, a smaller than average 90 cm fabric width and stiffness of the new fabric from traditional starching which washes out.

I have a flat zippered pouch for my medications. It is so easy to find them in here. The lining is traditional blue.

And here is a traditional blue one

Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

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