L’Éléphant Zébré ® is the market reference for original South African Shweshwe or Isishweshwe fabric which is always best gotten reliably from the source.
Unlike African wax prints, Shweshwe has characteristic regularly spaced, intricate patterns and a starched finish. Wax is not used in the manufacturing process and it is printed on one side only.
Shweshwe is a 100% cotton, colourful, high quality fabric. It is very versatile and can be used for clothing, home decor, table linen, quilts, bags, soft toys, creative sewing and textile origami.
Like Japanese fabric, Shweshwe has its origins in dyed indigo fabrics. It was introduced into South Africa by German settlers in the 19th century as ‘Blue Print’ or ‘Blaudruck’. Xhosa women gradually added what they termed ‘Ujamani’ to their red blanket clothing. These mission-educated African woman absorbed European clothing styles enjoying the blue hue the indigo gave their skin. Today, it is much-loved in South Africa and is used for traditional wear as well as contemporary South African fashion design. It has been described as the denim or tartan of South Africa.
Original Shweshwe is solely manufactured in King Williams Town in the Eastern Cape. The process is still done traditionally whereby fabric is fed through copper rollers which have patterns etched on the surface, allowing a weak acid solution to be fed into the fabric, bleaching out the distinctive white designs. Original Shweshwe can easily be identified by its intricate all-over prints, smell, stiffness before washing and backstamp on the fabric
The distinctive prewash stiffness and smell of original Shweshwe comes from its production process and history, when during the long sea voyages, starch was used to preserve the fabric from the elements and gave it a characteristic stiffness. After washing, the stiffness disappears to leave a beautiful soft, yet hardwearing cotton fabric. The characteristic smell is attenuated and soon disappears completely.
In its starched, unwashed state, Shweshwe has other interesting usages such as scrapbooking and textile origami. It is also excellent for covering books and boxes.
L’Éléphant Zébré’s ® shweshwe fabric is sold washed and ready-to-use.
We also offer kits of starched Shweshwe for textile origami and scrap booking projects.