The presence of indigo cloth in South Africa has a long and complex history. Its roots probably extend as far back as early Arab and Phonecian trade along the eastern seaboard before 2400BC. The arrival of the indigo cloth emerged after the 1652 establishment of a seaport at the Cape of Good Hope. Slaves, soldiers, Khoi-San and Voortrekker women were clothed in indigo, and there is also evidence of floral printed indigo. Much of the early indigo cloth at the Cape was from India and Holland. Natural indigo dye was obtained from the Indigofera Tinctoria plant.
During the 18th and 19th centuries European textile manufacturers developed a block and discharge printing style on indigo cotton fabric. In 1862 a German chemist developed synthetic indigo. In the 18th century Discharge printed indigo was manufactured and printed in Czechoslovakia and Hungary by Gustav Deutsch, and much of this cloth entered the South African market. In the 1930s he emigrated to Britain and established a factory in Lancashire. This factory, machinery and expertise was later purchased by Blue Printers Ltd. in Wigan. Such was the demand for this fabric that eventually there were four companies producing this print style, the largest being Spruce Manufacturing who produced the most popular brand name, Three Cats, which was exported to South Africa.
In the early 1840s French missionaries presented Moshoeshoe I with a gift of indigo printed cloth, establishing a cloth preference that grew during the 19th century, and still prevails today, hence the term shoeshoe or isishweshwe. Further, German settlers to the Eastern Cape in 1858 often elected to wear the Blue Print that was widely available as a trade cloth and echoed the Blaudruk that they were familiar with in Germany.
Xhosa women gradually added what they termed Ujamani to their red blanket clothing. These mission-educated African woman absorbed European clothing styles enjoying the blue hue the indigo gave their skin.
The production of Indigo Discharge Printed Fabric in South Africa started in 1982 when Tootal (a UK based company) invested in Da Gama Textiles. Blue Print was then produced under the Trade Mark of Three Leopards, the South African version of the Three Cats trademark. Tootal also introduced a range named Toto, as well as two new colour ways – a rich chocolate brown and a vibrant red.
In 1992 Da Gama purchased the sole rights to own and print the branded Three Cats range of designs, and had all the copper rollers shipped out to the Zwelitsha plant. To date Da Gama Textiles still produces the original ‘German Print’, ‘Ujamani’ or ‘Shweshwe’ at the Zwelitsha factory in the Eastern Cape. The process is still done traditionally whereby fabric is fed through copper rollers which have patterns etched on the surface, allowing a weak acid solution to be fed into the fabric, bleaching out the distinctive white designs.
The fabric can easily be identified for its intricate all-over prints and beautiful panels. The common trademarks or brands, Three Cats, Three Leopards and Toto 6 Star are authenticated by a backstamp on the fabric. Users are skilled at verifying the fabric’s authenticity by touch, smell and taste to ensure that they are purchasing the genuine fabric and not reproduction or fake cloth. The indigo also fades with washing in a similar manner to denim. The Three Cats range is sourced from a closed library of designs whereas the Three Leopards range introduces new designs on a regular basis. Isishweshwe has a distinctive prewash stiffness and smell: the answer lies in its production and history, when during the long sea voyage from the UK to South Africa, starch was used to preserve the fabric from the elements and gave it a characteristic stiffness. After washing, the stiffness disappears to leave behind a beautiful soft cotton fabric. he typical use of the fabric is for traditional ceremonies in the rural areas, thus ensuring a constant demand for this particular fabric. In certain cases special designs are produced for important occasions such as royal birthdays and national festivals. Today this fabric has become fashionable beyond its traditional sphere of usage, and praise must go to our young South African designers for their renewed interest in this traditional national heritage.
The fabric is marketed to the wholesale and retail sectors throughout South Africa. Credit must go to our wholesalers who through their efforts ensure sustainability by creating employment opportunities for people in the urban areas. They sell the fabric by the meter and also commission the informal sector to make garments. The wholesalers are active participants in assisting small business entrepreneurs in the make-up and selling of their wares. Da Gama as a company recognizes their efforts and will continue to support their activities.
We are proud to have acquired a national reputation and to have become a household name with our Isishweshwe production. At present Da Gama Textiles is perhaps the only known producer of traditional Indigo Dyed Discharge Printed Fabric in the world. We are committed to continuing to produce quality prints that distinguish us from the reproductions in the market place, upholding the traditional values that havebecome associated with this fabric over the centuries among diverse cultural groups throughout South Africa – The ORIGINAL Shweshwe.- Article courtesy Da Gama Fabrics.