Da Gama textiles are produced locally in the Eastern Cape, South Africa and are the only producer of original shweshwe textiles worldwide!
They are also a big employer and through their distribution network they believe to support in excess of 20,000 informal market dressmakers.
The History of Shweshwe
The origins of shweshwe is believed to go as far back as before 2400BC with Indigo-dyed clothing being traded by Arab and Phonecians along the Eastern Seaboard. At first, the natural Indigo dye was obtained from the Indigofera Tinctoria plant but in 1862 an alternative synthetic dye was developed by a German chemist.
During the 18th and 19th centuries European textile manufacturers developed a block and acid discharge printing style of intricate designs on Indigo dyed cotton called ‘Blaudruk’. At this time Indigo dyed cloth and print were widely manufactured and printed in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
During the 1930s a prominent Hungarian textile manufacturer Gustav Deutch immigrated to the UK bringing along with him all his machinery and equipment to manufacture discharge Indigo printed fabric from his factory in Lancashire. This was later sold to Blue Printers Ltd in Wigan. During this time there was an increased demand for discharged Indigo printed fabric and four factories were used to manufacture this print style, the largest being Spruce Manufacturing who produced the most popular brand namely Three Cats.
Shweshwe arrives in South Africa
Indigo cloth arrived in South Africa after 1652 via the Cape of Good Hope seaport and slaves, Khoi-San and Voortrekker women were clothed in it.
In the 1940’s French missionaries presented King Moshoeshoe I with a gift of Indigo printed cloth, establishing a cloth preference that still prevails today.
German settlers in the Eastern Cape during 1858 elected to wear the Blaudruk cloth that was reminiscent of Germany. Due to the influence of German missionaries, the Xhosa women gradually started to incorporate the Blaudruk print that they named Ujamani to their red blanket clothing. The use of shweshwe was further integrated into traditional Xhosa weddings and the status of the women in their communities, which by this time included two new colours – rich chocolate brown and vibrant red.
Da Gama Textiles purchases sole rights to own and print the Three Cats range
The production of Indigo Discharge printed fabric in South Africa started in 1982 when the UK-based company Tootal, who owned the Three Cats brand, invested in the then Good Hope Textiles and Da Gama Textiles. Blue-Print was then produced under the trademarks Three Leopards and Toto, the local version of Three Cats.
During 1992 Da Gama Textiles purchased the sole rights to own and print the Three Cats range of designs and had all the original copper rollers, design library and machinery shipped to Da Gama Textiles in Zwelitsha, Eastern Cape. To date, Da Gama textiles still produce the original shweshwe at their Zwelitsha factory. The process is still done traditionally whereby a weak acid solution is fed onto the fabric, bleaching out the intricate white designs.
As per government requirements, Da Gama Textiles is currently in the process of commissioning a new water treatment plant to ensure the quality of the water used is not harmful to the environment.
How to verify if you bought authentic shweshwe?
It is easy to verify the fabric’s authenticity by touch and smell. The Three Cats range is sourced from a closed library of designs with a small injection of new designs to keep the range interesting and up to date. In certain cases, special designs are being printed for important occasions such as royal birthdays or national festivals. Shweshwe 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 SA starch was used to preserve the fabric from the elements and gave it a characteristic stiffness that disappears after wash to leave a beautiful soft cotton fabric.
In the past, the fabric has mainly been used for traditional ceremonies in rural areas, but today the fabric has become fashionable and well recognised mainly due to young South African designers incorporating shweshwe textiles in their designs.
The fabric is marketed to wholesale and retailers throughout South Africa. Wholesalers ensure sustainability by creating employment opportunities for people in urban areas. They sell the material per meter and 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 and Da Gama as a company recognises their efforts and will continue to support their activities. Da Gama also directly supports various community projects.
Da Gama is proud to have acquired a national reputation and to have become a household name with shweshwe production. At present Da Gama Textiles is perhaps the only know producer of traditional Indigo Dyed Discharge Fabric in the world.