Photo courtesy of Marula Imports. Bongiwe Walaza, designer.

We spend a lot of time on Sewing With Nancy talking about sewing techniques or tips, often bypassing the history behind the fabric. Indigo fabrics and dyes have a rich history and continue to be part of many cultures. In South Africa, this fabric is known as Shweshwe. Elizabeth Schell of Marula Imports, originally from South Africa, joined me via SKYPE during a recent Nancy’s Corner segment to explain this historic fabric.

Q: Elizabeth, I saw Shweshwe fabrics for the first time about 1-1/2 years ago at a quilt market. I was totally impressed. Please give our readers the history behind this fabric.

A: The presence of indigo cloth in South Africa has a complex history. Its roots probably extend as far back as 2400BC. The arrival of the indigo cloth emerged after the 1652 establishment of a seaport at the Cape of Good Hope. During the 18th–19th century, European textile manufacturers developed a block and discharge printing style on indigo cotton fabric

 Q: You kindly gave me a collection of fat quarters of the fabric. What I noticed first was the stiffness of the fabric, yet your quilts and clothing samples were soft and subtle. Tell readers about the interesting finish added to the fabric!

A: Shweshwe has a distinctive stiffness and smell—a pleasant smell. The answer lies in its production and history. Historically during the long sea voyage from the UK to South Africa, starch was used to preserve the fabric from the elements and gave it a characteristic stiffness. By the way, after washing the stiffness disappears to leave behind a beautiful soft cotton fabric!

Q: I’m intrigued by how the fabric is printed. Give us a review of the process.

A: The fabric is passed under copper rollers which have patterns etched on the surface, allowing the transfer of a weak discharge solution onto the fabric. Subsequent unique finishing processes create the distinctively intricate all-over prints and beautiful panels.

Storage of copper rollers

Close-up of copper rollers

Q: Tell us about the fabrics interesting trade mark?

A: The common trademarks or brands, Three Cats, Three Leopards, and Toto 6 Star are authenticated by a backstamp on the fabric. Users are skilled at verifying the fabric’s authenticity by touch, smell, and taste to ensure that they are purchasing the genuine fabric and not reproduction or fake cloth.

I used some of my Shweshwe Fabric to create a tote, using the Florida Tote Template. You can read my previous blog on Fat Quarter Friendly Bags

For more information about Shweshwe fabric, please watch my interview with Elizabeth Schell, during the Nancy’s Corner segments of Sewing With Nancy Designer Handbags part 1 and part 2 with embroidery expert, Eileen Roche

Watch Sewing With Nancy online.

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Have any of you sewn or quilted with Shweshwe fabric?

Bye for now,

Nancy Zieman The Blog

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