After nearly 3 months, I continue to spend most of my time finding homes for the quilting treasures of my dear friend Helen. Her eye for unique fabrics yielded fabrics I've never seen before. This is one example.
When I came across them....there were the typical indigo prints....and I assumed they were Japanese Ikat....but then as I dug deeper into the bin, browns and reds appeared. Still I thought...hey more Ikat.
Upon examination, I noticed the manufacturer's imprint on the back.....what?? They aren't Japanese at all....instead it's stamped - "Three Cats", made in England! A few are marked "W", I have yet to find this company.
If you are interested in the history of this unique cloth....click here....or read the 'cliff' notes below. I gather from my research that most of this fabric was produced before 1992, but I suspect these were even earlier as my friend traveled to England frequently in the 70's and 80's.
I'm undecided whether I should keep these goodies for myself....or find homes for them since I also have a small tub full of the indigo style. The only resource I could find outside of South Africa to purchase this fabric is in Canada....which includes duty, shipping, handling, and I assume a big hassle. If anyone is especially interested in these pieces.....email me.
Shweshwe which gets its name from the Sotho king Moshoeshoe [Moshweshwe] I after French missionaries presented him with some of the indigo printed cloth in the 1840s. The cloth was further popularized in the Eastern Cape (South Africa) when German settlers in the late 1850s often chose to wear the blue cloth which echoed the German Blaudruk. Xhosa women gradually added what they termed Ujamani to their red blanket clothing. Shweshwe clothing is traditionally worn by newly married Xhosa women, known as makoti, and married Sotho women.
The first indigo cloth was introduced to the Cape (South Africa) when it became a seaport. At that stage the indigo dye was made from natural material and most of the cloth came from India via Holland. The printing technique used was known as block and discharge. The block refers to the woodblock out of which the patterns were gouged before being soaked in dye and pressed onto the fabric. And the discharge refers to the bleaching of the indigo to produce the white areas. In the early 1860s a German developed a synthetic indigo.
By the 1930s the cloth was being made in Lancashire, England. There were several factories making the cloth. The largest was Spruce Manufacturing which produced the brand name, Three Cats – the one which was exported to South Africa. In 1992 Da Gama Textiles bought the sole rights to Three Cats and the original engraved copper rollers were shipped to South Africa. Da Gama Textiles uses cotton from Southern Africa, mostly from Kwazulu Natal. The traditional block and discharge process is still used (although the woodblock is now a copper roller). The fabric is fed through copper rollers seen on the right, which have patterns etched on the surface, allowing a weak acid solution to be fed into the fabric, bleaching out the distinctive white designs.
Starched stiffness – signifier of authenticity
Isishweshwe has a distinctive prewash stiffness and smell which is very much part of its appeal and popularity. During the long sea voyage from the UK to South Africa, starch was used to preserve the fabric and this gave it its characteristic stiffness. After washing, the stiffness disappears to leave behind a beautiful soft cotton fabric. Apparently at one stage the fabric was no longer starched but when sales dropped, it was reintroduced.