Indigo fabrics have been used in South Africa since many years. Even around 2400 BC, the arabs and phoenicians traded indigo fabrics on Africa's east coast. As the Cape of Good Hope was established around 1652, soldiers slaves, the indigenous Khoi-San and the Boer Voortrekkers were all clothed in Indigo alike. Many of the early indigo fabrics came from Hollans or India. The natural dye was won from the plant indigofera tinctoria.

 

During the 18th and 19th century, european textile producers developed a block print style for cotton-based indigo fabrics. In 1862, the first synthetic indigo dye was developed by a german chemist.

In the 18th century indigo fabrics were pressure-printed mainly in Hungary and Czechia, under the oversight of Gustav Deutsch, and a large part of these fabrics found its way onto the South African market. In the 1930s Deutsch emigrated to England and established a factory in Lancashire. This factory as well as its machines and expertise were bought by Blue Printers of Wigan.

 

The demand for these indigo fabrics was so high that for some time, four factories were printing in this style. The largest manufacturer was Spruce Manufacturing, who's most popular brand Three Cats was also exported to South Africa.

 

In the early 1840s french missionaries presented the Xhosa king Moshoeshoe I with the indigo printed fabric, which led to the development of a fabric preference among the Xhosa people of Southern Africa well beyond the 19th century. This is where the name Shoeshoe, or isiShweShwe, originates from.  

 

Apart from that many german immigrants living in the eastern Cape after 1858 preferred the indigo fabrics, which were readily available and reflected the "Blaudruck", or "blue print" that they knew from home. Through this influence, the Xhosa women integrated this "Ujamani" into their red-toned dressing style. These missionised african women absorbed the european clothing style and developed a preference for the blue hue which the indigo also gave to their skin.

 

The production of indigo fabrics in South Africa itself only began in 1982, as the english company Tootal invested in Da Gama Textiles. The indigo fabric was now produced under the brand Three Leopards, the South African version of the Three Cats trademark. Tootal also produced the pattern line Tot and introduced two new colour pallettes - a warm chocolate brown and a glowing red.

 

In 1992, Da Gama Textiles bought the rights to the Three Cats Trademark and imported all of the copper printing rolls to their factory in Zwelitsha.

 

To this day, Da Gama Textiles still produces the original "Blaudruck", "Ujamani", or "ShweShwe" patterns in their factory located in the eastern Cape of South Africa. In this traditional printing method, cotton fabric is fed between two copper rolls, that have a pattern on their surface. A weak acid solution is bled onto the fabric which creates the particular white designs. 

 

The fabric can be identified by its subtle, delicate patterns. The well-known trademarks Three Cats, Three Leopards and Toto 6 Star are marked by a stamp on the back of the fabrics. The Three Cats line includes a set series of prints, whereas new patterns are sometimes added to the Three Leopards brand.

 

ShweShwe fabrics have a particular feel and smell which is owed to the printing process. The colour intensity of the ShweShwe fabrics fades with washing similar to jeans fabric. Before washing, ShweShwe has a characteristic stiffness and smell, which disappears when washed to leave a wonderfully soft cotton fabric.