Isishweshwe Background | Western Cape Government

Isishweshwe Background

(Department of Cultural Affairs & Sport, Western Cape Government)

Dr Nomafrench Mbombo, Minister of Cultural Affairs and Sport will be launching the isiShweshwe travelling exhibition on Thursday, 25 September 2014 at the Lwandle Museum in the Western Cape as part of the 2014 Heritage Month celebrations.

The exhibition consists of 10 panels and 12 dolls dressed in isiShweshwe fabric 9Various designs).  It traces the history of isiShweshwe, and its indigo print cloth predecessors, and celebrates the richness of the ways that it is used in contemporary dress in South Africa. 

Indigo, and the techniques used to dye and print with it, was one of the things brought to Europe as a result of the 16th and 17th century Indian Ocean trade routes.  The beautiful blue cloth and delicate patterns became very popular, and Europeans began copying techniques and producing “blue-print”, especially in German regions.  When industrialisation and mechanisation spread through Europe in the 19th century, blue printed cloth became a significant product of these factories. 

When European settlers came to Africa, they brought blue printed cloth from Europe with them.  It was worn by European women in Africa, and was also an important trade item.  Because it was sturdy, durable and inexpensive, it was used to clothe slaves at the Cape, and worn by converts on mission stations. 

Because it was so popular in South Africa, British textile companies started producing cloth especially for the South African market, and a distinct style emerged.   In the early 20th century British manufacturers created a textile company in South Africa, which later became Da Gama textiles, the most significant producer of isiShweshwe. 

Indigo, discharge printed cloth resonated with Africans and took on its own identity as isiShweshwe, amajamani, ujamani, jelmani, jereman, motoishi, Duitse sis. South Africans began to merge the new fashion into their traditional cultural practices, a creative process that continues to this day. Isishweshwe continues to have many cultural applications in southern Africa, especially amongst women, and can be seen as a marker of southern African cultural identity. 

The exhibition celebrates the beauty of isiShweshwe clothes, from street wear to costumes which carry deep cultural significance.  It also looks at how isiShweshwe has entered the world of high fashion, showing the ways that South African designers use this cloth, once primarily valued for its thrifty qualities, to create beautiful items of clothing and express their creativity. 

Users of isiShweshwe adopt the fabric in ever-changing movements of creativity, continually embracing new versions of African and South African identity.  

Isishweshwe Background Afrikaans 

Isishweshwe Background isiXhosa

The content on this page was last updated on 23 September 2014