|Posted by Egonne Roth on September 27, 2017 at 3:30 AM|
It was 1972 – the height of Afrikaner nationalism and apartheid and I was a student on the campus of Stellenbosch University. I was seventeen years old and I wanted to register some kind of protest at being forced to study in this all Afrikaans environment. I was not the kind of youngster to wave banners and do sit-ins, shout slogans or smoke pot. It simply did not appeal to me and I did not want to embarrass my mother, even if she was the cause that I was where I did not want to be.
Girls still had to wear dresses on campus – trouser suits were introduced in my second or third year – crimplene and miniskirts were the height of fashion. After searching places like Wynberg Main Road and the fabric warehouses in the side streets of Cape Town CBD, I discovered the kind of protest that suited me: “African sis” – “Blauwdruk” – or as it has become known today: Shweshwe – indigo dyed fabric with intricate geometric designs worn by African women. It was the beginning of a lifelong love affair, one that has deepened and grown to include the newer designs and colours that have become part of the range with its characteristic Three Cats logo printed on the back.
Since announcing my intention to spend a year in Berlin, everyone has been warning me that the long northern winter would depress me and grey my soul. While I passionately hate temperatures that exceed 30 C, I have begun to wonder how I will cope with extended periods of cloudy overcast rainy days that go on and on and on. Then it came to me – I need to fill my new world with African colour and warmth. Shweshwe!
I wrote to Da Gama Textiles in King William’s Town and received a friendly answer explaining that they do not, for very good reasons, do factory tours. I wrote back acknowledging their reasoning, but explaining my passion for their product. Their kind and understanding design manager offered to give Yehudit and I an hour tour as recognition for my loyalty to their product.
From the moment we stepped into reception we knew we were in for a special experience: in front of us stood a life-size aloe plant as often seen along the roads of the Western and Eastern Cape, but this one was skilfully made of Shweshwe fabric. It is so realistic and beautiful that the revolving doors have to be kept shut as the hummingbirds come in to sit on it – of course, those little beaks could do real damage to this work of art. Imagine photographing that!
Soon our hostess, dressed in Shweshwe met us and guided us through this extremely large facility that at its height employed around 7000 workers from the local community. Today, due to Chinese copies sold at lower prices, the production has been reduced needing only about 780 workers. Walking through the factory’s many large warehouses to see the various stages of production, it was sad to notice open empty spaces.
She promised the supervisor she could see through her bead curtain. Her cell phone is safely tucked away.
Yet, notwithstanding this, there was a pleasant buzz with several of the women dressed in Shweshwe in honour of Heritage Day.
At the various production points the different processes were explained to us and we were fascinated by the huge machines and the path the fabric follows. I realised how blithely we step into shops, look at fabric, complain about prices without the vaguest idea of what is entailed in producing the wonderful fabric with its distinctive smell and texture in rich colours. We enjoyed the visit enormously – it was an experience that we will not forget and that has renewed our love of the fabric. Unfortunately, due to industrial copyright legislation we were not able to take many photographs.
Da Gama factory gardens
After our tour, we went to the factory shop. I was worse than a child in a sweetie shop. I could not make up my mind. I moved from cut-off bins to tables stacked high to carefully sorted shelves. They offered me huge bags of leftover pieces at a really favourable price per kilogram. The smallest bag weighed 22kg but Yehudit said, “NO! Not enough of the warm colours you need and too much indigo you don’t need!” She was right but I was sad. The thought of drowning in my favourite African fabric in the middle of the Berlin winter seemed extremely attractive. She was firm and I understood, but silently promising myself, “Next year in King William’s Town.”
Still, we left with several meters of vibrant fabric and for the next two nights I could not sleep as blue and red and orange and brown and pink patterns ran through my brain asking to be arranged into quilts and cushion covers and even the odd bag or two. When I learnt how little Da Gama Textiles export, I started wondering – could I start a small home craft selling warm African fabrics in faraway Berlin?
In the Eastern Cape Shweshwe is everywhere.
At East London’s Lavender Blue Farmer’s market (Old Gonubi Road) the waitresses wear Shweshwe aprons and head wraps,
the woman shopping next to me in Port Elizabeth is proud of her brown print dress
and dolls at Old Nick's Farm stall. I constantly want to ask women if I may photograph them. Shweshwe can no longer be considered the protest I used it for in the early 1970s – it is part of being proudly South African.