Shweshwe: My Story

leaf graphicBorn in South Africa into a family of creative seamstresses and knitters, it’s no surprise that I love shweshwe. This traditional 100% cotton print evokes many memories, the first of which is as a little girl in the fabric warehouses of Cape Town with my mother as she bent over the bolts making decisions. It is an aromatic memory: the sweet starchy smell of sizing, used to strengthen shweshwe for its sea voyage from Manchester in Britain to South Africa, comes to me when I think of those excursions.

As a student at university there were many of us who wore wraparound skirts made from pre-printed shweshwe panels, which we bought at the station road shops where the African women came to buy their fabric.

In those days you could buy only indigo blue or chocolate brown fabric printed in traditional designs, with the Three Cats or TOTO Six Star logo stamped on the back of the fabric. After starting to work as a teacher I met up with a quilting group and passionately added another facet to my sewing skills. It was in this time that shweshwe print designs started to diversify, adding bright red to their range, as well as new colours printed onto the original designs.

leaf graphicBy the time my children were born in the nineties Da Gama Textiles in Zwelitsha in the Eastern Cape bought the rights for the shweshwe designs and all production shifted to South Africa. These were exciting times: Nelson Mandela was released from prison and the country was moving out of the Apartheid era. I enjoyed seeing shweshwe becoming part of the cultural shift. Since that time, young designers have brought shweshwe onto the fashion runways, interior designers have introduced shweshwe into home design, and crafters have used it for anything from jewellery, to purses and shoes, not to mention quilts.

In 2001 I moved to Canada with my family, and our visitors from South Africa P1040061would bring gifts of shweshwe to add to my stash for sewing projects.

In the summer of 2013, my husband and I were privileged to visit Da Gama Textiles in Zwelitsha, where we were saddened to hear that there are inferior quality copies of this lovely fabric being produced at present and that cash strapped consumers in South Africa have been snapping them up.

Da Gama Textiles is an equal opportunity employer, maintaining ethical standards of production. They will not cut costs by compromising their quality or employment standards; however, due to the impact of those inferior copies, they have had to downsize considerably, which has had an enormous impact on their local community.

P1040603By developing an export market, they will be able to increase production and provide much needed employment once again.

I am thrilled to introduce Three Cats Original Shweshwe to sewing enthusiasts all over the world, so that we can all enjoy this lovely fabric and be part of the initiative to provide employment for more South Africans.
Visit Meerkat Shweshwe’s profile on Pinterest.