The Origins Of Leteise (Shweshwe / Ujamani) Fabric
Whether you’re from Botswana and call it Leteise (or Letoitse), or from South Africa and call it Ujamani, or from Lesotho and call it Shweshwe – the one common thing about this fabric is that most people mistake it for being traditional and native to southern Africa. But it’s not!
Indigo cloth first arrived on the African continent after the establishment of a seaport at the Cape of Good Hope in 1657.
The fabric gained popularity in the mid-1850s amongst the Basotho when French missionaries presented their ruler, King Moshoeshoe I, with indigo printed cloth as a gift. The fabric grew in popularity and was soon referred to as Shoeshoe or Shweshwe.
German settlers to the Eastern Cape, who had adopted indigo themselves, as it resembled their own cultural wear, introduced the fabric to Xhosa women. They named it Ujamani (the German) and incorporated it into their red blanket clothing. In Botswana, still to this day, the fabric is commonly referred to as German print.
Although the typical use of the fabric is for traditional ceremonies and important occasions, in recent years it has become increasingly fashionable beyond its traditional sphere of usage. However, the fabric is still produced using the traditional method where fabric is fed through copper rollers which have patterns etched on the surface, allowing a weak acid solution to be fed into the fabric, bleaching out the distinctive white designs.
The fabric can easily be identified for its intricate all-over prints and beautiful panels. The common trademarks or brands include Three Cats, Three Leopards and Toto 6 Star, and are authenticated by a back stamp on the fabric.