When I began my second quilting class, for intermediates, I wanted to use the traditional African fabric that is readily available here in South Africa, known as Shwe Shwe (Shway Shway).
The original brand, Three Cats, is only available in the traditional indigo blue, red and brown. I chose to use only the red and blue for my quilt. When South Africans see this quilt they usually think, “Oh, red, white and blue, for America.” But, other than the colors it is more African than American.
In this class we learned many new blocks and techniques such as:
- Dresden Plate
- Drunkard’s Path
- Log Cabin
- Folded Bow Tie
- Churn Dash
- Maple Leaf
- Folded Star technique
- Stained Glass
- Seminole Strips
- Friendship Braid
- Paper Piecing
- Flying Geese Trees
- And Schoolhouse Block to name a few.
All of these blocks, with the exception of Dresdan Plate, were used in the quilt shown in this post.
The origin of the original Shwe Shwe designs is European but the blue cloth was initially imported from Asia, mainly India, where they used a natural indigo dye that was extracted from the Indigofera Plant in a long, tedious process.
Although indigo cloth first came to South African with the first settlers in the mid 1600’s it wasn’t until 1800’s that the printed designs were introduced by settlers from Europe. Eventually the most popular brand to emerge was Three Cats which was eventually produced in England and shipped to South Africa. There are a few debates about who first introduced these designs to and exactly when but there is no question about the enduring presence of this product on the market. Once it arrived in South Africa, it was here to stay.
The Xhosa women discovered early that this material was beautiful to look at and hard-wearing. It wasn’t long before it became the national dress for these ladies. Across South Africa today, native women consider this line of unique indigo fabrics an integral part of their tribal and traditional clothing.
In 1992, when companies in England ceased manufacturing indigo fabrics, Da Gama Textiles in South Africa bought the original copper roller plates, pattern books, and dye formulas and the sole rights to own and print the Three Cats range of designs. They still produce this in their Zwelitsha factory in the Eastern Cape in South Africa.
They also produce the Three Leopards and Toto fabrics. Today, Da Gama is one of the last remaining manufacturers of indigo fabrics. Although they have outsourced the growing of cotton, they still do their own weaving and print fabrics using the original copper rollers.
The process is done traditionally where the unbleached, un-dyed, raw fabrics are run through an indigo dye bath that turns the fabric pea-soup green. Oxidation, or exposure to the air, turns the fabrics their distinctive indigo blue. The fabric is then fed through copper rollers that have patterns etched on their surfaces, allowing a weak acid solution to pass through to the fabric, bleaching it and leaving the traditional white design.
The fabric is easily identified by its intricate all-over prints and beautiful panels with animal, flower and traditional motifs.
There are plenty of copies going around so you need to make sure you are buying the real thing. Traditional consumers of the fabric test it by touch, smell and even taste to ensure that they are not being sold an imitation. But if you aren’t comfortable putting new material in your mouth you can check the back stamp on the material which clearly shows the Three Cats logo.
Original Shweshwe is very stiff when it is new. The reason lies in its history: during the long sea voyage from the UK to South Africa, starch was used to preserve the fabric from the elements and this gave it a characteristic stiffness.
Even though the material is now produced in South Africa the material is still starched because of the taste and feel method used by locals to identify the real thing. After washing the stiffness disappears to leave behind a beautiful soft cotton feel.
The indigo fades with washing in a similar way to denim. The fabric must be washed separately many times before using in a quilt to be sure that it does not fade/bleed onto the surrounding fabrics when the quilt is washed.
How Shwe Shwe Got Its Name
In the early 1840’s French Missionaries presented Moshoeshoe 1 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 (shwe shwe).
The information in this post was verified telephonically and with official Da Gama Textiles publications.
This fabric can be purchased in the USA here.