Featured: The Story of ShweShwe

Craft Editions is delighted to have commissioned Hands Design Collective to create a unique collection of table linen using the Three Cats brand of ShweShwe, which is made exclusively in South Africa by De Gama Textiles. Hands Design will make the Craft Editions range from this beautiful and authentic South African fabric.  

ShweShwe is a printed cotton and is often referred to as the denim of Africa; because it is distinctive and durable it is used in everything from clothing to household textiles. The original and most popular ShweShwe is indigo. Indigo cotton, which is an entirely natural colour, has a long history reaching as far back as the ancient Greeks. It began to flourish in South Africa once a seaport was established at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652.

Indigo cotton became a very popular cloth and in the C18th textiles manufacturers developed a method of printing onto it called ‘block and discharge’ to create wonderful, intricate patterns. A Hungarian émigré Gustav Deutsch established a company in Lancashire called Spruce to manufacture and print it. Spruce’s best selling brand Three Cats exported this printed cotton all the way from Lancashire in the UK to South Africa.

In the early 1840s French missionaries presented King Moshoeshoe I of Lesotho (also spelled Moshweshwe) a gift of printed indigo cloth which he loved and wore. Thus the name ‘ShweShwe’ was created and its popularity was sealed!

ShweShwe is made using a traditional process where the fabric is fed through copper rollers which have patterns etched onto the surface. A weak acid solution is fed onto the fabric and bleaches out the distinctive white designs. As well as being easily identified for its stunning prints and beautiful panels, authentic ShweShwe can be distinguished by its touch and smell. After printing, the fabric is waxed and must be washed and dried prior to being used for making.

In addition to the traditional indigo, ShweShwe now comes in a vast variety of vibrant colours. As well as being used to make dresses, skirts and wraparound clothing, Three Cats ShweShwe is in constant demand as it is used in traditional ceremonies in rural South Africa.

In 1992 all the copper rollers from Lancashire were shipped to the Zwelitsha factory in the Eastern Cape by Da Gama Textiles, who now own the Three Cats ShweShwe brand. They are the only producer of traditional indigo dyed fabric in the world, making it the original ShweShwe.

 Read more about Hands Design Collective.

All images by Alfred Lor for Craft Editions.

SouthBrian Waring