South Africa’s iconic fabric started out as the original indigo trade cloth used on the east coast of Africa from about 1 000 A.D. In the mid-17th century Indian cottons came to the Cape when the Dutch East India Company started importing fashionable indiennes.
A gift of indigo-printed cloth to king Moshoeshoe I by French missionaries in the early 1840s popularised “Seshweshwe” or “Seshoeshoe” (sejeremane in Sesotho) in the Northern Sotho (Pedi), Southern Sotho (Sotho) and Tswana cultures. During the mid-1800’s German missionaries and traders brought blaudruck – associated with European regional and Protestant dress – to the Eastern Cape where mission-educated Xhosa women gradually added ujamani to their clothing. Nowadays shweshwe (isishweshwe in Zulu) takes pride of place at traditional ceremonies in rural areas and special designs are produced for royal birthdays and national festivals. Vibrant, chic and distinctive this “national heritage item” has become a proudly South African trademark instantly recognizable all over the world – read more under Origin Stories at www.artsandculture.google.com. This distinctive fabric was also extensively used as a political statement against the government during the apartheid years.
Today the only true shweshwe is manufactured by Da Gama Textiles in the Eastern Cape – perhaps also the only producer of traditional Indigo Dyed Discharge Printed Fabric in the world. Touch, smell and taste distinguish their Three Cats and Three Leopards brands from reproductions in the market place. Showing off shweshwe is part of being proudly South African; and by using Three Cats shweshwe the Friemersheim based Shweshwe Stop project also helps to support local industry.
The Shweshwe Stop Project
In 2018 shweshwe, the original blaudruck introduced by German missionaries to the Eastern Cape in the mid-1800’s, found a new home in the heart of a former mission station at the foothills of the Outeniqua Mountains. The Shweshwe Stop project was launched during the annual Fragrance Fest in March – a first small step towards establishing a “must visit” tourist destination at Friemersheim, the village started by Reverend Johann Kretzen in 1870.
New shweshwe has a distinctive prewash stiffness and smell: the answer lies in its production and history, when during long sea voyages starch was used to preserve the fabric from the elements. Material is first pre-shrunk – washing also removes the starch – before the shweshwe is then sent to The Friemersheim Sewing Group, creating job opportunities close to home for a number of local women. After washing, the stiffness disappears to leave behind a beautiful soft cotton fabric. The 100% superior quality cotton will dry quickly, especially on a windy day, and will last for many years.
The wonderful PROEbag, a non-electric slow cooker, and a range of other articles (aprons, oven mitts, Munchbags, serviettes, scrunchies and more) are for sale at The Friemersheim Sewing Group. The shop is usually open every week day until lunch and some afternoons as well, but it is best to contact Petra Jordaan @ 082 957 7715 or Cinty Joubert @ 073 455 7346 to confirm.
Visit the Great Brak River Museum on the way to learn more about the PROEbag; another version of this remarkable product made the Time Magazine “top 50 genius products worldwide” list in October 2018. Here you can also watch a free slideshow regarding the uses of the PROEbag and the history of shweshwe. A few PROEbags are for sale at the Museum with a percentage of sales donated to their fund.
Queries and contact details: Nelma Ruschioni at firstname.lastname@example.org.