Familiar patterns: Yonela Mja, left, pairs a vintage isishweshwe dress with an oversized denim jacket, while her sister, Aviwe, complements her dress, in Da Gama Textiles’s pumpkin shade, with a sleeveless knitted top and leather jacket. Picture: THE HERALD/SOLETTE RHODES
Familiar patterns: Yonela Mja, left, pairs a vintage isishweshwe dress with an oversized denim jacket, while her sister, Aviwe, complements her dress, in Da Gama Textiles’s pumpkin shade, with a sleeveless knitted top and leather jacket. Picture: THE HERALD/SOLETTE RHODES

The various incarnations of isishweshwe — Zulu for "blueprint cloth" — help us to understand SA’s history and culture, and its earliest trading with Europeans.

Smell, taste and touch are all engaged in the authentication of isishweshwe fabric by discerning buyers. It is salty to the taste, starchy to the touch and has a distinctive smell. A great deal of information can be gleaned about people from reading their attire: their financial status, fashion consciousness and gender alignment.

In 2013 an exhibition curated by Wieke van Delen and Juliette Leeb-du Toit and titled The isishweshwe Story: Material Woman? was appropriately held at the Iziko Slave Lodge.

Many slaves and First People in SA were forced to cover their nakedness with the cloth of missionaries and colonialists in accordance with the religious dictates and morés of Europe.

Leeb-du Toit, an academic and the author of isishweshwe: A History of the Indigenisation of Blueprint in Southern Africa, unpacks the fabric’s complex history. Her book’s photographic references are the primary guides to tracing the history of the fabric.

Older Cape Dutch style — in particular architecture and household goods — has some influences from Indian Ocean countries, such as Indonesia. These arrived with slaves, artisans and indentured labourers who expressed themselves in furniture, food and fabric.

Her mother wore isishweshwe pinafores, and so did their domestic worker. Leeb-du Toit says her mother wore the fabric partly as a political statement of solidarity with people oppressed under apartheid.

Leeb-du Toit has been wearing the fabric since the 1960s as an alternative dress statement against apartheid and in keeping with feminism.

Much of the cloth that was sold in Africa preceded western trade monopolies, deriving from the dominant Arab trade along the eastern seaboard of Africa.

Leeb-du Toit’s research indicates that an early precursor of isishweshwe originated in the East, especially India. It was an indigo-dyed cotton cloth produced from the 8th century and known in Europe, among other things, as Indienne.

Older Cape Dutch style — in particular architecture and household goods — has some influences from Indian Ocean countries, such as Indonesia. These arrived with slaves, artisans and indentured labourers who expressed themselves in furniture, food and fabric.

As Leeb-du Toit points out, isishweshwe’s functionality, durability and availability made it a highly desirable fabric.

"The fabric has permeated the dress of numerous South Africans irrespective of race or culture at one time or another," she writes.

Different names

Slaves, soldiers, Khoi-San people, settlers, Voortrekkers, pioneers and trekboers all wore it. They had different names for the distinctive fabric: bloudruk (Afrikaans), ujamani and idarki (Xhosa), seshoeshoe (Sotho) and isishweshwe by the Zulu.

The fabric travelled and was traded in Namibia, Zimbabwe and Angola.

Indigo cloth, or "slave cloth", produced in the 15th century by West African slaves was used by the Portuguese as currency in the slave trade.

There are many possibilities for the origins of the name for isishweshwe. One is that it was named after the 19th-century Sotho king Moshoeshoe, who was given a bolt from French missionaries as a gift and endorsed it as a cloth of choice.

The other is the onomatopoeaic sound of its name, referencing the swishing sound the cloth makes.

Traditionally, the fabric is blue, red or brown, with blue being preferable. The names given to the patterns on isishweshwe cloth are poetic, such as "flies in the buttermilk" or "the stones of the Ngoye Forest".

Isishweshwe designs are based on everyday life and include chicken pox, hairy caterpillars and even Robert Mugabe’s hair.

There are many misconceptions and much historical ignorance about the fabric. As Leeb-du Toit points out, black people may not have conceded to the ideologies behind the fabric but they recognised it as a "serviceable cloth".

She writes about her positive experiences wearing it in the 1980s. She was approached by two Sotho women who thanked her for wearing the fabric in solidarity with them. But she was also admonished by a woman who thought that "cross-cultural dressing was pretentious". In the Anglo-Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein, along with quilts containing isishweshwe, are bonnets worn by the Boer women.

Foreign fabrics

Leeb-du Toit explains that during the war the British began to lose trade and were eclipsed by the Germans — hence the terms ujamani and jeremane.

But at a more recent Fees Must Fall meeting, a white woman in attendance wearing isishweshwe was confronted by a student questioning why she was wearing "our traditional dress". Leeb-du Toit writes that variants of the fabric originate in and continue to be worn in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Germany, Holland and the US.

Isishweshwe is alive and well and flourishing in the hands of a new generation of SA designers. Maria McCloy uses the fabric in her shoe and bag designs; the Lesotho-based fashion collective Bonono Merchants is fond of it; Chere Mongangane and Lemohang Mpobane are using it for moonbags, caps and jackets; and Refiloe "Mapitso" Thaisi, founder and designer of Shweshwekin, is using it to make swimwear. A film about the fabric is expected to be launched early in 2019.

When people talk about the fabric of a society, they usually mean a system or basic structure encompassing customs and beliefs. Isishweshwe in all its manifestations is like a society. It is sometimes new and other times is torn, patched, threadbare, stitched and often reconstituted.

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