Sometime ago I got a message from Emily who has just opened her online sewing store in South Africa. She offered me a few metres of Shweshwe fabric of my choice to use for my sewing. Maybe I’m ignorant, but it was the first time I’ve ever heard about Shweshwe fabric so of course I was quite interested. When I browsed around her store and saw the fabric, I realized that I’ve seen them before but I just didn’t know the name of that fabric. The more you know!
Shweshwe is 100% cotton that is preserved with starch in the same process that was used in past centuries to enable merchants to ship the fabric on long sea shipments. The starch gives the fabric it’s distinctive stiff appearance, smell and taste. Shweshwe must be washed in cold water before sewing to remove the stiff starch.
Emily’s store, Stitch, provides Shweshwe fabric by Da Gama Textiles, one of South Africa’s oldest and leading textile companies that produces the 3 Cats brand of original Shweshwe. Dagama still produces the original Shweshwe using traditional methods. The fabric is fed through copper rollers which have patterns etched on the surface, allowing a weak acid solution to be fed into the fabric, The acid bleaches out the distinctive white patterns. For more about this fabric, you can read it in the store page here.
Very interesting, isn’t it? I love all the bright colors and the geometric patterns. I finally made a decision after spending time browsing this page, and chose this red and blue Shweshwe fabric.
The fabric came a couple of weeks later. The patterns are called New Mountain (red) and New Rope (blue). The fabrics were indeed covered in starch and were quite stiff. After washing them, they became softer. Not very soft though, I should say that they are a bit heavier than quilting cotton fabric. But I imagine that this fabric will become softer with every use, maybe like Indonesian batik. The colors, however, stay as bright as they are after washing! These fabrics screamed summer to me!
The width of the fabric is only 80 cm, fortunately 2 meters of it was just enough for a summer dress for me. The pattern is Hazel Dress by Colette Pattern. I cut size 0 with a bit of alteration to make the bodice smaller. Not enough fabric for the pockets though!
The dress is unlined and has an invisible zipper on the back. I made a quick muslin for the bodice first because Colette pattern bodices are always quite too big for me. The skirt is just a couple of rectangles so the sewing went quite fast. The reasonably stiff fabric made it even easier. Sometimes I didn’t even have to use pins at all.