What is Shwe Shwe?


| By Rachel Monique Maskell

What is Shwe Shwe?

One of the missions of our brand is to learn about cultures through their textiles. Textiles, or fabric, contains within its threads, a woven history, a story of its origination. We believe learning about this origin story can help us connect to a place and its people a little better. 

During my research, before coming to South Africa, I came across shwe shwe fabric and De Gama Textiles. The photos of the fabric looked so beautiful I knew that they would be a great fit for the kimono design I was working on. But it wasn’t until I was in Cape Town that I had a chance to feel and connect with the fabric, and for shwe shwe this is an important element for working with it. 

One of the unique features of shwe shwe is the starch. Originally this was used to help with the dampness on the boats from transport. It was imported to South Africa in the mid 1800s from German settlers. When you feel the fabric it is very stiff and it must be washed before sewing. And similar to denim the more you wear it and wash it, the softer it gets. Because underneath it all, it’s just a cotton fabric. Bonus…it’s printed on cotton which is grown locally in the Eastern Cape so doesn’t have to travel far. 

In its original form it was indigo dyed with the patterns being etched out through bleach. Now you can find shweshwe in several different colorways and pattern designs on the fabric. Not all colors or prints stay in production however so our Shwe Shwe Kimonos are truly one of a kind. 

Another interesting detail of this fabric is that it’s only 90cm wide. As a designer this must be taken into consideration because not all designs can utilize such a narrow width. Additionally more yardage must be used to accommodate. 

Since shwe shwe has expanded beyond traditional ceremonial uses to everyday items and runway looks the knock off fabrics have become more commonplace. The only official manufacturer of shwe shwe is De Gama Textiles located in the Zwelitsha township outside King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Their trademark label is Three Cats. You will find their stamp on the inside of the material to verify its authenticity. 

Being in Cape Town you can see the fabric being used for all sorts of things. And now having a more intimate understanding and connection with the textile I can feel the South African pride reverberate through as they continue to reclaim their heritage and celebrate their craftsmanship. 

For more information on shweshwe check out these articles: