Shweshwe: Fabric of the Inner City

Shweshwe: The Fabric of the Inner City

Shweshwe. The word captures the rustle of the vibrantly colourful fabric as a woman models a blue maxi dress with signature white markings in Bongiwe Walaza’s design studio on Pritchard Street in Johannesburg. Standing with her hands in her pockets and wearing a matching head wrap, she embodies poise and beams with pride. The flowing material pools from her waist to the floor as she sways from side to side, evoking the fabric’s name.

Named after 19th Century Sotho King, Moshoeshoe 1,which also gave rise to its name, shweshwe is the quintessential fabric of South Africa, synonymous with South African textiles and traditional wear. Colonialists gifted the king with this ‘indigo cloth’, with traces to India and Holland. Shweshwe has since become the product of assimilation, speaking to both the South African fashion industry and society at large.

Johannesburg’s fashion district spans 26 blocks in the CBD between End, Jeppe, Market and Von Wielligh streets. It forms a multi-cultural hub within the city, populated by over 1000 businesses in all aspects of the fashion supply chain: sourcing, manufacturing and retail. Stepping onto the bustling streets of the inner city, one can find shweshwe in rolls, lining the shelves of fabric stores or as ready-to-wear garments hanging in one of the many shops you may wonder into.

A few floors up from the streets, shweshwe can also be found, being cut and fed through sewing machines. Shweshwe has a wax-like texture that is sturdy but soft to touch. A defining feature is the all-over prints, featuring different designs that range from simple to intricate geometric patterns.

Wendy Larsen, a textiles expert with a Masters in Sustainable Fashion Design and Textiles, explains that the fabric is crafted using “plain 100% cotton calico”. The cotton is woven and then finished with a printing process. The printing process is an acid discharge, creating the “typical black and white prints on a plain base colour, usually blue, red or brown”, Larsen says. The fabric’s intricate patterns are permanently imprinted onto the material, allowing it to weather wears and washes.

Making a garment using shweshwe can be costly. The blue dress in Bongiwe Walaza’s studio, situated on the second floor of a well-kept building in Prichard Street (the heart of the district), required about 13 metres of fabric to create. The material costs R55 a metre at Fashion Distribution Wholesalers situated a floor below. Walaza is a designer renowned for her shweshwe creations, says Tumi Modiba who oversees the studio. The consultation room inside the studio is spacious, with runway photographs of Walaza’s designs on the wall, some garments hanging in the corner and a dressed mannequin that looks out of the window. Following her gaze, you see the Fashion Kapitol, a centre that sets out to revitalise the ailing industry and support African culture and business. It received substantive investments and is still functional, despite not yet yielding the desired results.

Modiba, explains that clients select the fabric which they then source. Other costs include the design, patterns and labour involved in the manufacturing process. This makes up the R3500 all inclusive cost of the blue dress modelled before me. The manufacturing process takes place in another spacious, well-lit room. A row of tables hold sewing machines, one of which is being used by a woman who feeds the fabric through it. The sound of the machine hammering down can be heard clearly. Opposite her is a large table where material is being cut. There are two rails overflowing with patterns, which are large brown cut-out plans that detail how the material needs to be cut and sewn. At the end of the room, someone presses an old steel iron onto a finished garment.

The original copper rollers used to print the fabric were brought to South Africa, says Larsen, allowing for its authentic local production. The original fabric makes its way to the streets of Johannesburg CBD’s from the Eastern Cape, where it is produced by the only original makers of shweshwe (since 1992), Da Gama Textiles, founded in 1948.

The material makeup of textiles determines not only how they feel, but also how they function. Shweshwe is a versatile fabric, used to make dresses, pants and shirts. Once purchased, the stiff texture is softened when washed of its starch, which contributes to the fabric’s distinct smell (similar to freshly-cut potatoes). Washing also shrinks the material by a few centimetres. Traditionally, the starch was used as a means of preservation. Shweshwe fabric needed to be preserved historically as it reached South African shores by ship. The material, formerly known as ‘indigo cloth’, was brought to South Africa in the 1800s by European settlers.

“It found popularity and became synonymous with Sotho attire,” Larsen says. Xhosa women then incorporated the material into their traditional wear. This was the start of the traditional shweshwe colours being brown, blue and red. The colours have since expanded to include vivid shades of gold, pink, green and turquoise. Although traditionally used by Sotho and Xhosa people, the material’s reach has broadened.

Agnes Madi is a sales assistant at a fabric store on Pritchard Street where a large section near the window has two aisles of shweshwe under a banner that reads “African Print Fabrics”. She says people in Lesotho still wear shweshwe on an everyday basis. South Africans, however, “use it mostly for special occasions”. Modiba echoes this, stating that shweshwe is also used to make wedding dresses at the studio. The fabric is used throughout South Africa.

Modiba believes that South African’s embrace culture, hence the multi-cultural adoption of the material. International clients from France, Germany, Swaziland, Uganda and Botswana frequent the studio in search of garments made using shweshwe.

The Johannesburg CBD is host to an “eclectic and cosmopolitain mix of people” keeping the fabric in use, explains Larsen.

On the streets of the fashion district, you see some people sitting outside of their storefronts, whilst others navigate through the urban jungle, either in vehicles or by foot. The cityscape is bustling with the sounds of chatter and cars on the littered roads. Everyone seemingly has a purpose and destination to get to. The clothing worn is casual and Western in silhouette, although there are African elements that are incorporated into the looks. These range from the items made from African materials to African-inspired prints. The people in town and the clothing they wear has changed since the 1980s, when coming to town was an occasion to dress up for. Practicality and functionality are the primary focus of the people who now populate the area, unlike those historically whose socio-economic positions afforded them the opportunity to think about fashion.

Through the diversity of nationalities and cultures, as well as the rise in black consciousness, traditional clothing has re-emerged in contemporary styles. Distinctly African fashion in both design and material are becoming increasingly popular. Modiba explains that clients seek fashion with an ‘African feel’ that is not only a means of dress but as something that is an indicator who the wearer is. This emerging identity is thus also inclusive of Western-inspired silhouettes that were introduced some years ago. It includes jackets, bags and hats which are a deviation from traditional uses.

“There aren’t really any other iconic types of fabrics that are really associated in the way shweshwe is,” says Larsen. It has become synonymous with South African culture and heritage. Larsen adds that, “Although still worn as traditional/cultural attire by the Xhosa and Sotho, many people of varied cultural groups and races wear it in many different ways.” Larsen believes that one of the reasons for the adoption of shweshwe as a widely used traditional fabric is that it is “less virtually symbolic of a particular culture”, as people are more willing to wear something that carries “subtle meaning”. There is an appreciation for the quality and style that shweshwe holds.

Now used multi-culturally, there is no apparent fear or anger of how one uses the material. Shweshwe is a commodity in all aspects of the fashion industry. Whether used in its traditional sense by retailers, made-to-order garments by individuals or in conceptual ways by designers, there is no apparent concern of appropriation by the people who work in Johannesburg’s fashion district. Appropriation is when a culture is misrepresented through the process of assimilation, often by a dominant culture. Shweshwe has a complex history, and thus does not truly belonging to any one person or group.

Although styles have become more contemporary, the looks created with shweshwe are largely still conservative, which may explain its ease of use. Modern silhouettes remain respectful, however, shweshwe remains fashionable and is increasingly so with the youth, especially in African style sub-cultures. The fabric has the transformative power of being applicable to high fashion on the runway, commercial in everyday clothing and also traditional wear. New styles of prints and colours of shweshwe are introduced, although they are kept to minor variations of the original designs. This ensures that it remains classic and distinct, yet still commercially viable.

South Africa once boasted a booming textile industry, producing “types of fabrics produced locally which were exported as high quality products”, says Larsen. The industry suffered a downturn towards the late 1980s, resulting in a collapse of the industry. Johannesburg’s fashion district now operates on a much smaller scale and almost completely informally, with the majority of workers being immigrants from other African countries.

Wandering into one of the buildings, the dilapidation is clear to see. The lifts have not been upgraded and there is still marble lining the walls. A lady sits idly at the reception, which is grand with its high ceilings, asking no questions upon entry. Stopping at each of the nine floors, you discover an enclave of fashion manufacturing. Several spaces still remain empty, with locked gates and the glass storefronts sealed off with newspapers dating back to the 1990s. Others are secluded, housing the manufacturers of leather, decor items, clothing and furniture. Navigating through the areas involves guesswork with connections to someone on the inside being a valuable asset as it becomes apparent that prodding questions are not welcomed. The buildings that stood empty have since been taken over or left empty. Walking into buildings that are still in operation, one can see abandoned rooms within them with only the remnants of what once was. The collapse was, in part, due to the emergence of cheap Asian imports.

Among the Asian imports available, is imitation shweshwe. The cost of this fabric is 20% cheaper than the original. Buyers of shweshwe often look for the original as they are brand loyal and knowledgable about the differences that set the material apart. Imitation shweshwe has a width of 150cm whereas the original’s is 90cm. It lacks the vibrancy of colour and signature starchy feel. Furthermore, the original is marked with the Da Gama “Three Cats” logo that is printed on the back and is made up of 100% cotton. The imitation variety is often composed of cotton blends, such as polycotton.

In Bongiwe Walaza’s studio, the woman in the blue dress looks at herself in a mirror, removing her hands from her pockets to adjust her head wrap. She smiles as she eyes her silhouette before turning to leave the room. The fabric follows the rhythm of her strides, creating a trail of whispers: shweshwe.