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What is Shweshwe?

african fabric african inspired elevin melanin Shweshwe

Shweshwe (also spelled Seshoeshoe and Seshweshwe) is a cotton fabric common within the African continent, primarily South Africa and Lesotho.  Shweshwe is considered native to southern Africa, as it has been present since at least the mid-1600s, but the indigo dye and cloth was originally imported into a seaport along the Cape of Good Hope from India and Holland.

Shweshwe - south african inspired fabric - 2- elevin

The style of print for Shweshwe emerged in the 18th century in Czechoslovakia and Hungary by a man named Gustav Deutsch, who developed the block and discharge printing style.  It was around this time that the cloth began growing in popularity within the South African market.

indigo Shweshwe - original south african inspired fabric - elevin

The name Shweshwe originates from Moshoeshoe I, a clan chieftan to whom French missionaries presented indigo cloth.  Indigo, not being native to South Africa, quickly grew in preference in this region, and was called shoeshoe or isishweshwe as a reference to the originating chief.

Over time, blue cloth became even more common as German settlers came into the mix, purchasing the blue cloth that could mimic the Blaudruk clothing common at home in Germany. Xhosa women on the Eastern Cape began incorporating the cloth into their wardrobes given the blue hue that it provided their skin, calling it Ujamani .

Fast-forwarding to present day, Shweshwe is now used in both traditional and contemporary fashion for dresses, skirts, aprons and wraparound clothing by people in all ethnic groups across Africa.  It is no longer exclusively indigo, ranging across many bright colors, but continues to be printed in a discharge style.  

Shweshwe couture example - african inspired fabric - elevin

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