Three cats, three leopards and a textile called shweshwe

You see it covering shoes, stitched into place mats or funky African shirts, even covering the odd teddy bear. Shweshwe fabric has been seen on the catwalks in Paris and still takes pride of place in traditional ceremonies in rural South Africa. This quintessential South African textile has a colourful history and bears testimony to the fact that the textile industry in South Africa is not totally defunct.

Shweshwe, as we know it in South Africa, can be traced back thousands of years when Phoenician and Arab traders bartered with traditional indigo cloth that got its distinctive blue colour from the Indigofera tinctoria, a species of the bean family. Later, in the 18th century, the indigo cloth was used in a distinctive block and discharge printing style by European textile manufacturers, especially those in German-speaking regions. One of these manufacturers settled in the United Kingdom where there were eventually four factories to meet the demand, most importantly Spruce Manufacturing with its brand name Three Cats that exported to South Africa.

On local soil the material was a favourite among German settlers in the Eastern Cape and found its way to become underskirts to the red blankets of Xhosa women in the 1800s.

It is believed that Shweshwe derives its name from King Moshoeshoe (1786 - 1870), first monarch of the Basotho people, who received a bolt of this fabric from French missionaries around 1830.

Shweshwe, also known as German print, blue print or sis, is a stiff, starchy cotton fabric that softens after the first wash and fades gradually in the same way that denim does. The starch was introduced to the fabric to protect it from the elements on long sea journeys from England to the colonies.

It was first produced in South Africa in 1982 by Da Gama Textiles in King William’s Town, Eastern Cape under the trade mark Three Leopards, the local version of the original Three Cats trade mark. Later on two additional colour ways were introduced to the original indigo, chocolate brown and red.

In 1992 Da Gama bought the sole rights to the Three Cats brand range and designs and had the copper rollers shipped to its Zwelitsha plant in the Eastern Cape.

Today the material is still produced according to the original process where fabric goes through etched copper rollers and a weak acid solution bleaches the pattern into the fabric. The brands Three Cats, Three Leopards or Toto 6 Star are then back-stamped onto the fabric.

Three Cats is produced from a library of existing designs, whereas Three Leopards changes continuously and also provides fabric for special occasions such as the Albertina Sisulu commemorative skirt panels produced in 2012.

So, although Shweshwe wasn’t ours to start off with, we can safely say that this versatile material today has a frim place in South African iconography.