Iconic shweshwe a much-loved emblem of Heritage Month

Sep 23, 2021

Bold, bright and stylish, shweshwe is a mesmerising show-stopper. It’s woven into the fabric of South African life, and the longevity of its use is a testament to its durability and timeless appeal. As such, as we continue to celebrate Heritage Month, there’s no better fabric to surround yourself with than this much-loved cloth.

The printed cotton has long been used to make traditional clothing and other eye-catching products, and as a standout fashion statement or piece of utility gear, it’s guaranteed to brighten up even the gloomiest day.

The synergy that makes this fabric so attractive can be attributed to its characteristic geometric patterns, brilliant rainbow colours and rustling ‘swish swish’ sound when moved. Add the tactile elements of salty taste, distinct smell, and initial stiffness, and it’s clear that shweshwe has a nuanced allure.  

Often referred to as the ‘denim’ or ‘tartan’ of South Africa, the shweshwe vogue has seen it become fashionable way beyond its traditional usage. While it’s still seen at ceremonies and often worn by Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana and Pedi people, most notably as bridal gowns and bridesmaid’s dresses, shweshwe is also a fixture on top runways of the world. 

Morphing from hardy streetwear to elegant haute couture, its trajectory now places it as a firm fashion favourite of influencers, fashionistas, celebrities and the like.

Tailor-make almost anything

The history of shweshwe stretches from Asia to Europe, finding its home in Africa where it mostly evolved. According to historians, the name ‘shweshwe’ derives from its royal influencer, King Moshoeshoe.

The genuine article is now manufactured by Da Gama Textiles in King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape in a variety of colours and geometric designs. This ‘original’ shweshwe is made from 100% quality cotton and is always 90cm wide.

After washing, the material is soft and easy to work with, making it perfect for dressmaking and crafts. Classic examples of this can be seen in the popular hand-crafted products of Ikamva Design, an endeavour of Ikamva Labantu, that seeks to increase job opportunities for artisans in Cape Town’s township communities. 

Maria Matseke, Melanie Peterhans and Lulama Sigasana drive this creative venture that was born amongst crafters at the Ikamva Labantu Seniors’ Clubs. Their love of shweshwe is obvious.

Ikamva Design Founder Maria Matseke comments: “The design team just loves the colours and the patterns of shweshwe. When we expanded our range of products from beading to sewing, the choice of shweshwe came naturally. We started experimenting with lots of different shweshwe fabrics, but pretty soon, we realized it is Da Gama Textiles and their Three Cats label we want to work with. Their quality is outstanding, and there is a wide variety of colours and patterns to choose from. There are many copies on the market, and we learned to avoid them due to problems with colour loss in the laundry.” 

“We started with table linen, as we have a very good collaboration with an event agency. From there we developed more product categories, like cushions and handbags. The primary purpose of Ikamva Design is to create jobs, and nothing is impossible for the ladies working with us. We take on orders from private persons and organizations, and we can tailor-make almost anything,” she says.

Vivid hues and geometric patterns are a standout feature. “I find many of the colours and patterns really cool and bold, and those products stand out excellently, like orange, green, and pink. Products made from the more discreet fabrics like beige, blue, and white have become very popular, especially among our European customers. Da Gama Textiles continuously add new colourways, and last year’s introduction of the white/gold line was a perfect match with many of our products. Talented designers and artists create new patterns for Da Gama, so we can always expect new attractive fabrics!”

“We get much energy from the material we work with, and it brings us joy – it’s so bold and bright and shweshwe is almost a part of Ikamva Design DNA today.” 

Ikamva Labantu Programme Manager for the Seniors’ Department, Lulama Sigasana adds: “The use of shweshwe also has a traditional meaning in our culture. The material is not worn by girls, but by women. The significance of that is that one has moved from being a young girl to being a woman. So, when a young woman gets married, she wears a main skirt with another apron on top of it, and that means you are a dignified young woman protecting your home.”

To all South Africans, Happy Heritage Month! Let us continue to celebrate our unique and colourful culture and heritage.