Shweshwe, the Denim of South Africa

Shweshwe, the Denim of South Africa

 Shweshwe dress on the fashiob runway


I never knew I could fall in love with a fabric, but it happened. The minute I first laid eyes on all the different bright, bold, and inspiring colors and patterns I just had to get some for myself.

At first, I didn't know what I was going to do with it but I just had to buy an array of colors. My creative juices were on fire, and I couldn't wait to learn more about this unique South African treasure.

Shweshwe has a long history and I love hearing about the evolution of how it came to be. I think you will be as surprised as I was to learn the origins of this amazing and iconic South African fabric.

 South African shweshwe fabric


Did you know that the continent of Africa includes 54 countries??

Each country and region have their own textiles, food, customs and style. It's impossible to simply call it African because once you dig a little deeper you see distinct differences in cloth from Kenya, Nigeria, Congo, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Ghana.

Each country has developed its own beautiful style. South African shweshwe is unlike any other African cloth style.

“Shweshwe is the country’s number one fabric. It is the fabric most worn by South African women – it is the tartan of South Africa. South African women have been wearing it since the 1850s.” – Graham Leonard (Da Gama joint-MD)



 with Arab and Phoenician trade on the eastern side of the continent. It started with indigo from the Indigofera plant, a tropical shrub that was used as a natural dye. 

In 1652, the Cape of Good Hope seaport was established at the southernmost point of South Africa where the original indigo-dyed fabric was brought and traded (


Colonizers began importing European goods to the Cape of Good Hope in the 18th and 19th centuries. But it was the Brits who began exporting the indigo printed fabric to South Africa, the most popular of which was the trademark fabric Three Cats brand – the authentic shweshwe brand. (


Those in the know identify the original Three Cats shweshwe by smell, touch and even taste!

Yes! The original textile had a salty taste. That blew my mind! Not sure that's still the case, but it's still a fascinating and fun fact.

 Shweshwe fabric manufacturing on copper rollers


So, here's the actual process of making shweshwe.

The pure white calico 100% cotton fabric is fed through a series of copper rollers that have patterns etched into them. Then a weak acid solution is fed onto the fabric, bleaching out the distinctive intricate white designs to create an eclectic range of attractive prints. (

Indigo is the original color used to make shweshwe, but today there are many more colors to choose from and a large variety of designs including florals, stripes, diamonds, square and circular geometric patterns. 

What I love about the pre-washed shweshwe fabric is the starchy texture and smell. The history is that starch was used to preserve the fabric from the elements on the long sea voyage to South Africa - that must be where the salty taste comes in (although I do not advise tasting the fabric now).

The smell of the fabric is unique and unlike any other fabric I know of. That's part of the charm and emotion of this beloved textile.


Once the shweshwe is washed it will soften and lose the smell.

- Machine wash using the gentle or delicate cycle (warm/cold water).

- Use only delicate or sensitive detergent.

- Avoid bleach or other harsh chemicals.

- Fabric softener is optional, the fabric will soften without fabric softener.

- Cleaning agents should not be poured into the drum or on the material directly. 

- Remove the bag from the washing machine within a few minutes after the washing machine cycle is complete. 

- DO NOT put the bag in the dryer. Studies show that tumble dryers, dry cleaning and direct sunlight can seriously damage pure cotton. The dryer can harm the fabric with creasing, and potential color damage. Abrasion, tearing and cracking may also occur over time.

- Air-dry the bag until it is almost fully dry but still damp.

- To remove creases use an iron on the 'cotton' setting. If the shweshwe fabric is dry or nearly dry re-moisten with the iron's built-in sprayer or use a spray bottle.

- Generously use the steam setting on the iron for removing sharper creases and wrinkles. However, avoid spray starch.

- All done!

 Shweshwe textiles on the fashion runway


So, you're probably wondering where the name came from? It is a fun word to say: shway-shway! Say it three times fast and you can't help but giggle.

There are some varying accounts on how the name came to be but the current official manufacturer of Three Cats, Da Gama, has this on their website: the original indigo shweshwe was worn by then King Moshoeshoe 1 of Lesotho in the 1840s and it was gradually incorporated into the Xhosa women's blanket clothing.

Traditionally, shweshwe is worn by newly married Xhosa (koh-sa) and Sotho (soo-too) women. The fabric is also used in a wide variety of clothing like dresses, skirts, aprons, and headwear.

In addition to traditional South African wear, it's also used in contemporary South African fashion design for both women and men and also lots of accessories, stuffed animals, tableware and much more!

It's so versatile!

 South African couple wearing matching shweshwe outfits


The funny thing is that I had a feeling I would need my sewing machine in Johannesburg so I included it in the move across the ocean.

SOOO glad I did.

At first, I made small zip pouches, and floppy bags and even got crazy one day and made a travel jewelry case, which I still use today.

The fabric is strong and so I decided to make a large tote bag with a combination of dark denim and a pop of shweshwe for fun and the rest, as they say, is history.

Now Bosisi Designs, the company I started as we left Johannesburg is producing the same pattern tote bags in many choice colors.

I use them every day as grocery shopping bags, retail shopping bags, overnight trips, girlfriend getaways and of course as gifts for people I love.

 Bosisi Designs handmade leather handbags and reusable totes

I hope you love shweshwe as much as I do and especially now that you know its history.

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