The story of Shweshwe

The fabric I am going to tell you about in ten parts is called shweshwe. It is a fabric with a long and sometimes bitter story that has a sweet ending. By tracing the origins of shweshwe fabric, you will discover much, much more than just the origins of an African textile. This story will take you on a journey through European trade and exploration to slavery in America, colonialism, the establishment of apartheid in South Africa and then to Nelson Mandela as the first democratically elected president of South Africa. It is not just a South African Story and it should throw light on the world as it is today.

Please comment at the end of your read. Feedback is always great.

1. What is Shweshwe?

Three Cats shweshwe, which is made by DaGama Textiles in the Eastern Cape, South Africa started its life a long time ago. Three Cats, today, is the most authentic shweshwe on the planet. Other manufacturers produce a cheaper look-alike shweshwe. But it is not the real thing and does not have a direct historical link to where it all started.

The Three Cats backstamp appears on the back of the printed fabric to signify authenticity

In South Africa shweshwe is called isishweshwe /isi shwe shwe/ by most people. The reason why it is called isishweshwe has been debated, and I’ll tell you more about that in in part 2 Why is ‘Shweshwe’ called ‘Shweshwe’?.

For the people who wear shweshwe, it has often been a marker of identity. The signifying function of this material has changed and evolved over the centuries. The original cloth, introduced in the 1600s and 1700s was indigo blue and had meanings related to stuff that was going on at that time, which I will tell you about later on.

Typical indigo blue shweshwe fabric

Since Nelson Mandela was released from prison (along with others who struggled for freedom) and led the country to democracy, shweshwe fabric has become more celebratory and uniquely fashionable in southern Africa. It has burst into a wide range of colours and designs that include customer participation. The fabric has been reclaimed by the people; but it wasn’t always so, and that is a story that I hope to unfold for you.

Shweshwe today – the embodiment of a rainbow nation, where differnt people all belong

2 Why is ‘Shweshwe’ called ‘Shweshwe’?

It is not clear why this durable cotton fabric is called shweshwe in southern Africa, but there are two main theories – one is a story of women and the other is a story of men.

Before telling you about these theories, you may like to know that before the name shweshwe became the common name in southern Africa, the fabric was referred to as Blue print, Manchester print (English), Blauwdruk (Dutch), Bloudruk (Afrikaans) and Blaudruck, ujeremani (German), to name a few.

Xhosa women, showing the use of indigo blue shweshwe fabric
(Photo by Mike Barwood from port elizabeth, nelson mandela bay, south africa

The first theory is onomatopoeic and is based on the story of women. The languages in southern Africa are rich in words derived from the sounds of things. So for example, the word in Xhosa for ‘thunder’ is ‘ukududuma’ /uku du du ma/, catching the sound of thunder beautifully. What do you think? Another example of onomatopeaia is isithuthuthu /isi tu tu tu/. Perhaps you can guess that one. There’s a clue at the end of this section.

Anyway, the first theory is that when cotton cloth was introduced into southern Africa by the European colonisers, coloniser women, missionary women and their women converts wore full skirted 18th and 19th century European styles that made a swishing sound. Blue print was worn by poorer people, and they were the ones who were really good at onomatopoeic language. So they heard the swishing skirts and created the word isishweshwe /isi shwe shwe/.

This is Mary Slessor. She was a missionary in West Africa, and is wearing a very swish dress. I couldn’t find a photo of a woman missionary in southern Africa, that was for free use (it can cost a lot of money to use visual material) so I thought this picture would do to get the idea.

The second theory is based on a story about men. The story goes that the cloth was called shweshwe after the King of Lesotho. Lesotho is  a landlocked mountain kingdom in the middle of South Africa. Their King acquired the name Moshoeshoe (1786 -1870) when he protected his followers from King Shaka Zulu’s army. The Sotho king was very brave and his people called him Moshoeshoe because in the SeSotho language ‘shoeshoe’, pronounced /shwe shwe/ means sharp like a blade, the blade that was used for shaving the beards of defeated Zulu soldiers.

King Moshoeshoe of Lesotho (1786 – 1870).
This file has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights. )

To me, the second theory and the story about King Moshoeshoe being the source of the name of shweshwe fabric is a bit of a stretch. I am inclined to believe the first theory.

isithuthuthu /isi tu tu tu/

3. The Indigo Plant

The fabric that people in South Africa have come to call ‘isishweshwe’ was originally all indigo blue. So let us take a look at where this blue dye came from.

Indigo belongs to the pea family and it has legume type pods.  It grows in the tropics and subtropics. There are many varieties of indigo, but the best ones for making dye are Anil Indigo  (indigofera suffruticosa) and True Indigo, also known as Black Henna (indigofera tinctoria).

An indigo plant (Photo by Dinesh Valke, Thane, India )

There is evidence that people began to use indigo plants for dye 6000 years ago in Peru. Since then, indigo has been used to colour cloth in different parts of the world. People in west Africa and north Africa have a long indigo dyeing tradition and it continues today. Indigo cloth is often worn there to signify status.

A Tuareg man wearing an indigo dyed headscarf [Garrondo CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

The Mesopotamians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, accessed indigo dyed fabric through trade, and it was highly prized, and worn by the elite. Interestingly, it is unlikely that Mary, the mother of Jesus, wore blue herself, given her low status in society in the middle east 2000 years ago. But blue continued to signify status well into the Renaissance when painters used blue to elevate her in art.

India has a very long indigo growing and cotton dyeing tradition dating back thousands of years. And it is this part of the indigo narrative that connects to shweshwe fabric, a link that I will reveal in the next section. In the mean time, the following nine minute video shows the process of traditional indigo dye making in India today. It will give you an idea of how this beautiful colour was probably made when it first impacted on southern Africa.

Indigo plants are said to have analgesic and healing qualities and so the workers in the video hopefully benefit from getting into the water with the dye.  It is worth seeing just how much work, water and resources go into making things that we take so for granted while shopping for fashionable clothes.

4 Cotton

The story of cotton is intrinsic to the story of shweshwe. Indigo and cotton went hand in hand in the shweshwe narrative.

A cotton boll
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License

Like indigo, cotton is a plant that grows in tropical and subtropical regions of the world. And similarly, cotton was independently domesticated in the Americas, Egypt and India. Fragments of cotton fabric dating back to the 5000 BCE have been found in the Indus Valley. By 500 BCE cotton was the predominant fabric in India. Interestingly, the English word cotton comes from the Arabic word ‘qutun’ which means fine fabric.

Cotton only made it’s way into our shweshwe story, however, after Vasco da Gama figured out a way around Africa to India (1497 to 1498).

Vasco da Gama
Houghton, Mifflin, and Company [Public domain]
One of da Gama’s three ships
Francisco Rodrigues [Public domain]

To begin with, the exploring adventurers obtained from Indian traders: spices for Europe, and cotton cloth and glass beads, to exchange with Africans for stuff like ivory and gold, fresh water and a bit of fresh food on their way home.  In time, however, a demand grew in Europe for indigo dyed cotton cloth as well.

The arrival of cotton cloth, dyed in indigo blues and other vivid colours, with designs that Europeans had never set eyes on before, got buyers excited. For merchants, there was money to be made. And in time, cotton would become ‘king’ … and drive some questionable trading and production practices, which you can read on to find out about.

5 The Hard Work of Cotton

So as Europeans developed a desire for cotton fabric in the 16th and 17th centuries (see 4 Cotton), the problem of getting enough of it began to exercise the minds of merchants who saw great money making possibilities.

Bringing cotton all the way from India was not exactly practical. Boats were small and other commodities were also very sought after – things like pepper, tea, Chinese porcelain, ivory, gold and gemstones. Fitting all this stuff into small wooden sailing boats was tricky. And getting those boats all the way around Africa without being wrecked was a challenge.

Ships trading in the East. Painting by Hendrik Cornelisz Vroom (1562/3 -1640) National Maritime Museum, London

In time, however, cotton was found to grow well in America. American cotton, as it turned out, was really good quality.  A number of settlers in Virginia grew some in 1616 but the big snag was processing the cotton. Getting up to 45 seeds out of each boll, and all the seeds out of one whole bale of cotton, by hand, took several days.  

So when some Dutch boats arrived in 1619 and offloaded 20 Africans who had been kidnapped from Africa (Angola it is thought), these new cotton growers were very interested. The Africans became a solution to their problem, and opened the gate to increased production.  The Africans were not seen as wage earning fellow immigrant settlers who had dreams of growing rich.  Rather they were perceived as units of ‘labour’, as assets, measures of wealth so to speak, that could be bought and sold.

William Blake, The history of slavery and slave trade, ancient and modern, Institute of state library services

Having slave labour did not seem to present a problem to the god fearing Christian settlers and traders. And so from then on tobacco, sugar, indigo and cotton production, in America, expanded. And with this economic growth, slave trading evolved into a business in and of itself and became intrinsic to the economics of colonialism and of the establishment of the capitalist system.

Colonial trade routes including the slave routes

As American cotton supply grew, spinners and weavers were busy on both sides of the northern Atlantic.  Cotton fabric was in demand in both Europe and America, and the cloth also became a handy exchange item on the African coastline. How ironic is that! I will share that story next.

6 Capital and Cotton

Previously, in part 5 The Hard Work of Cotton, we saw how the slow process of extracting cotton seeds from cotton bolls was resolved in America. American settler farmers purchased Africans from the 17th century into the second half of the 19th century. With African slaves, the farmers increased their output of cotton and their profit margins; and European slave trading became big business. Ironically, cotton cloth was exchanged with the African slave traders for more slaves.

The effect of all this new economic activity was that some people began to accumulate more money than they needed, and they wanted somewhere to put it to work. In 1694 the Bank of England was opened. By 1800, just over a 100 years later, there were 70 banks in Britain.  Investment became a thing. Wealth seekers bought shares in cotton and tea, tobacco, sugar etc., and in slave trading businesses.  They were building their capital.

The Worswick bank in Lancaster, which closed in 1822, and is now occupied by NatWest []

With all this new business going on, the possibility for making more money created an urge to  make more stuff for sale faster. Traders in places like Cape Town would look forward to the arrival of ships to deliver pots, tools, guns, chinaware, and fabric.

The Dutch East India Company in Cape Town. [; Kaap de Goede Hoop Project 1]

To serve the growing demand for commodities at home and abroad, and with the steady growth in capital investment, brainy problem solvers were increasingly in a position to think of ways to increase production, reduce costs and further increase capital. This was particularly in Britain, because once the British established control of the Cape at the southern tip of Africa, in 1806 they gained domination over the Indian and the Atlantic trading routes, and intensified their trading relationship with America. So if you had suffiencent means, you had thinking time or you paid somebody with the brains to think for you.

All sorts of new machines (spinning and weaving machines, steam engines and trains) were invented. There was a complete revolution in how to make things. Instead of families skilfully and slowly spinning and weaving at home, or black smithing iron tools in their back yards, factories opened and workers were employed to manufacture products with machines.

a. skilled spinner, cottage industry [Image from page 201, of “Studies in Ruskin: some aspects of the work and teaching of John Ruskin” (1890) ] Ruskin was alarmed by the loss of creative skills in 19th century Britain.
b. power loom weaving (1835) [History of the cotton manufacture in Great Briatain by sir Edward Baines, 1935

So the manufacturing and trading of cotton textiles became a major part of the 19th century American and British industrial economy and expansion. And shweshwe fabric was very much part of that economic story, as you will see in part 7 For the Glory of God.

Making so much cotton fabric in England, where the stuff didn’t grow, could not have been possible without lots and lots of cotton from America. The break through to an increased supply of cotton initially came in 1794, when an American cotton plantation owner Catherine Greene with her guest Eli Whitney, a Yale college graduate, put their heads together. Eli and Catherine came up with the cotton ‘gin’ (engine) – a mechanical machine that could extract seeds from cotton bolls really fast.

Drawing of a cotton gin [Pearson Scott Foresman, public domain].

This little machine, arguably, changed the world forever. Amazing if you think about it. So powerfully simple!

So you would think that the slaves who used to spend all day picking out 100s of cotton seeds could now walk free and start their own businesses to get onto the wealth train in America. But it didn’t work like that. Instead, plantation owners diverted their slaves (they had paid money for them afterall), away from seed extraction to growing and picking more cotton, increasing their production grand scale. And this boosted the textile industry in England even more, and with this growth came more trading and along with that, more capital to fund empire building.

7 For the Glory of God

By the mid 19th century, Britain was making things in a revolutionary way. Factories were replacing the cottage industries of spinning and weaving. And it so happened that some Europeans from the German, Czech and Hungarian speaking parts of Europe (they were not countries then) started buying the hard-wearing calico England was making. They printed indigo blue designs on the fabric mainly to be used by their own peasant farmers.

German example of printed indigo blue designs [Wikimedia Commons/Karl Gruber]

Meanwhile the new wealth being generated made Britain very powerful with increasing capacity for expansion. The British took control of sea routes to the places where they were trading and began colonizing the territories that lay beyond the trading stations.

Britannia Rule the Waves, decorated plate, made in Liverpool, on display at Château de Vizille [Wikimedia Commons]

And while all the economic activity was going on, a number of Christians in Europe and Britain felt the need to go to the African interior to save souls. They became missionaries (French, German, English, Scottish) and travelled inland from ports like Cape Town. These people not only worked on converting local indigenous people to Christianity, but also on educating their converts to be civilized* and follow European cultural norms.

* Note: I dislike the word ‘civilized’.  I still hear it being used today, to my great distaste. To me it communicates overtones of supremacist cultural frameworks and disrespect for different cosmologies and cultural norms that are rich and meaningful, and are often more environmentally sound.

Genadendal Mission Building in the eastern Cape. Genadendal was the first mission station in southern Africa

The Christian missionaries who went to southern Africa believed they had a moral obligation to stop things like polygamy, bride price (lobola), traditional healing practices and ‘immodesty’ (dressing for the hot climate). Converts had to cover their bodies with European style clothes to fulfill ‘the requirement of modesty’ (Frescura, F. 2015)

As it happened in most parts of Africa, where the missionaries went, traders followed. The two had shared interests. Missionaries generated a need for things like clothes, cloth, scissors, sewing needles, thread, blankets and tools, and traders were happy to supply them. They were also happy to sell the new stuff coming out of British factories like pocket mirrors, enamel basins and guns.

1893, Singer advertising card: six people from Zululand with Singer sewing machine.
[Pycryl Public Domain Collections]

And coming up behind the missionaries and traders were colonizers, who subjugated the local people to carve out farming land and mining rights for themselves and their mother countries. These colonizing settlers needed workers to realise their vision.  

Now to buy the stuff supplied by traders, and required by missionaries of their brethren, people needed money. But to get money, they needed paid work on farms and in mines. Thus it was that the missionaries, traders and colonizing settlers needed and satisfied each other.

1903 Johannesburg , African gold mine workers (look closely at the language used in the first sentence of thecaption text)
[ Wikimedia Commons ]

It was within this framework that the blue indigo cotton fabric, originally called uJamani or uJeremani (German cloth) or Blaudruk, entered southern Africa on a large scale; and came to be called isishweshwe (see 2 Why is Shweshwe called Shweshwe?). And over time shweshwe developed local and cultural meanings, signifying a particular church group, or a cultural group, and marriage.

Xhosa women dance group [Chell Hill, Creative Commons]

8 Power, Division and Three Cats

By the late 19th century, the traders, missionaries and settlers had created a significant network of economic activity within the southern African interior. Many of the local and settler women wore, among other things, robust indigo blue print,  ‘uJeremani’ / ‘bloudruk’ / ‘isishweshwe’, either as work clothes or to signify conversion to Christianity.

Around the 1870s and 1880s, many Afrikaans speaking people (settlers of Dutch descent) were living in the drier interior, often dressed in ‘bloudruk’. The British governed the Cape and the Colony of Natal, and their primary focus was on controlling the sea routes to India; and the interior didn’t interest them much to begin with.

But then word got out that an Afrikaans youth had picked up a diamond in the Orange Free State; and later, in 1886, that a huge basin of gold lay beneath the the Witwatersrand (both territories under Afrikaans control). Cecil John Rhodes, an English wealth seeker, quickly staked out much of the Kimberley diamond pipe; and a massive gold rush kick started Johannesburg.

Early Johannesburg [Image from page 18 of “S.A. mining and engineering journal” (1891) , Flickr the Commons]

With these valuable finds, the British turned their attention to the interior and eventually they had a huge fight with the Afrikaners, that pulled in Africans on both sides. The South African war, (1899 – 1902), also known as the Anglo-Boer war, was won by the British. After much wrangling, in 1910, all the Afrikaner and British colonies were joined into the Union of South Africa under the British crown.

The Union of South Africa under the British crown 1910. [Htoni, Wikimedia Commons]

You might be wondering what this has to do with shweshwe fabric. Well from 1910 onwards, the country took a journey along a path of separating white people from black and Asian people by law.  Under the British crown, many laws were passed which privileged white people and secured wealth in their hands. (You can look at these laws here.)  

During this period, white women gradually withdrew from wearing shweshwe fabric. They disowned it as a low status African thing.  Shweshwe fabric was not to be found in the shops in the ‘white’ city centres.  It was only available in the rural stores or in peripheral shops ‘down town’, owned by Indian traders. These outlying shops carry shweshwe fabric to this day.

Trade store in the Limpopo province where people still buy fabric
[Valerie Hearder:]

Meantime, in the 1930s, Gustav Deutsch, a manufacturer of blue indigo print in Hungary, now using synthetic blue dye, emigrated to Britain and established a company called Spruce in Lancashire, where they made a line of products called ‘Three Cats’. In time, Spruce was bought out by ABC, the main calico fabric producer in Manchester. ABC now became a big blue print manufacturer.

ABC produced a range of designs and themes specifically for their southern African market. By the 1960s, the ‘Three Cats’ print, originated by Spruce, was the customer favourite, consumed almost exclusively (not quite) by black South Africans. Three Cats was to become the forebear of South African produced shweshwe fabric as it is known today.

The popular Three Cats logo trademark, and notice the circle of text ‘designed in England for Spruce’ [Jeppestown,, Creative Commons]

9 Mao Zedong, Apartheid and Shweshwe

You might ask what Mao Zedong, a communist revolutionary and the founder of the People’s Republic of China, has to do with shweshwe? Let me explain.

Mao Zedong [ Wikimedia Commons]

In the 1930s, China began to make make cotton cloth. This made the Calico Printers Association (CPA) in Manchester feel uncomfortable. To deal with this perceived competition (as benignly as possible amidst growing tension between Japan and China at the time), the CPA built a spinning and weaving plant in Shanghai. This was known as the Shanghai Printing and Finishing Works (SPFW). The SPFW was the first British owned textile factory outside of Britain. I have marked with a factory symbol approximately where SPFW was built (Bickers, R. 1999)

Shanghai 1930 – [ Wikimedia Commons]

In the time leading up to Mao Zedong establishing the People’s Republic of China (1949), the Communist Party demanded that 50 per cent of SPFW’s profit, usually paid to shareholders in Britain, be paid to the future Chinese government. Not wanting to do this, the CPA pulled out of China.

After the second world war, the British wanted to mend their war-broken economy by developing secondary industry ‘abroad’. At the time, South Africa, as a British dominion, was open for business.  The United Party government, under Jan Smuts, (by now a great chum of Winston Churchill*) was keen to create employment in densely populated ‘black areas’ to stop migration of black people into the cities and towns which were designated  as ‘white areas’, (i.e apartheid in all but name).

Jan Smuts, circa 1942 [ Robert Cutts Flickr, Creative Commons]
 *Smuts and Churchill had been on opposing sides in the South African War (1899-1902) but by the end of the second world war, Churchill said of Smuts: ‘Smuts and I are like two old love-birds moulting together on a perch, but still able to peck.’ [in Wikipedia Coutenay, Paul H., Great Contemporaries: Jan Christian Smuts, The Churchill Project, Hillsdale College, 1 December 2007]

So by 1946, the CPA had moved the SPFW from China in its entirety, except for the workforce, to King Williams Town. It was renamed  Good Hope Textiles (GHT). Zwelitsha township was then built to house the new African workforce outside of King Williams Town which is where whites lived, and cotton calico production began in South Africa for the first time.  Later, in 1962, GHT was rebranded as Da Gama Textiles.

South Africa 1992 before the dismantling of apartheid, showing the distribution of ‘bantustans’, which were the semi independent states set up by the regime, to deny black Africans South African citizenship and rights of free movement. Any black person working in a ‘white area’ had to carry a ‘pass’ document or be sent to a so called homeland / bantustan [© Ann Macdonald]

In 1982, at the height of apartheid and when British manufacturing was shrinking because of pervasive British economic policies amidst global competition, Tootal, one of the British makers of shweshwe fabric, invested in Da Gama Textiles. By this time King Williams Town and Zwelitsha had been formally incorporated into the Ciskei ‘bantustan’, where Xhosa speaking migrant workers could be sent if their jobs ended in ‘white areas’. Da Gama Textiles began to print a line called the Three Leopards, the South African equivalent of Three Cats. Two new colours were introduced – chocolate brown and red.

Me, Ann Macdonald, the author of this text, in some newly made chocolate brown shweshwe dungarees, in KwaZulu-Natal
circa 1983

10 Protest and Celebration

As mentioned in 9 Mao Zedong, Apartheid and Shweshwe, from 1910 to the 1960s, shweshwe fabric was purchased almost exclusively by black South Africans from trade stores. African seamstresses sewed dresses themselves because it was cheaper than buying clothes in the shops. Sewing was also a way to make a living in remote ‘black areas’.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the National Party entrenched apartheid through harsh laws that prompted resistance. This culminated with the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, in 1963, and the further imprisonment, in 1964, of Walter Sisulu, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni, Govan Mbeki, Denis Goldberg, Elias Motsoaledi, Ahmed Kathrada and many others. To learn more click on this here.

This is Robben Island, where most political prisoners were sent. Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison on Robben Island. It looks idylic, with Cape Town and the rest of Africa beyond. But the sea is freezing and if you are a prisoner, there is very little chance of escape from this bleak place.
[ South African Tourism, Flickr, Creative Commons ]

Thereafter, greater repression, and resolute resistance continued. In that dark time, small numbers of white people felt estranged by the apartheid policies. They aligned themselves with African resistance, and sometimes signified their position by making clothes out of shweshwe and other African and Indian fabrics, only available in African and Indian trade stores.

A trade store near Tzaneen, Limpopo Province, still open to date [Valerie Hearder, textile artist ,]

At last, after years of resistance and violent uprisings in the townships, the apartheid government was brought to its knees in 1990. With the release of political prisoners and four tense years of negotiation, Nelson Mandela became the first black president of South Africa amid euphoric celebrations.

Nelson Mandela casts his vote in the first democratic election in South Africa, in 1994
[Paul Weinberg, Wikimedia Commons]

In 1992, Da Gama Textiles bought the sole rights to print Three Cats designs. The copper roller manufacturing equipment was shipped from England to King Williams Town. A new era of ‘ownership’ had begun. After centuries of trade, slavery, ‘civilizing’ missions, conversions to Christianity, colonization, and apartheid repression, this iconic cotton fabric now belonged wholly to South Africa.

Da Gama is the only factory in the world where shweshwe is made authentically, to the traditional, historical specifications. Real shweshwe fabric must have a Three Cats back stamp. It has a unique smell, tastes slightly salty, and needs to be soaked in hot water to remove the starchiness and soften the fabric.

The Three Cats backstamp on the underside of all authentic shweshwe fabric.

Shortly after shweshwe became fully South African, Three Cats exploded into exciting new colour ranges. Local designers breathed fresh life into new designs.

Shweshwe in contemporary and celebratory colours and designs, almost as if the fabric has been set free

2 Replies to “The story of Shweshwe”

    1. Hi Radha
      Thank you so much. I am so glad you enjoyed reading the Story of Shweshwe. I wrote it with a passionate desire to show the connections between so many forces that still affect us today within a harsh story that has a good ending. We all need to keep an eye on the prize. Best wishes Ann

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