Shweshwe Masks: Celebrating South African Heritage

Every year on 24 September, South Africans celebrate Heritage Day in honour of the diverse cultural wealth of our nation. The ‘Rainbow Nation’ includes the Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, and English languages (to name a few noting that South Africa has 11 official languages) as well as a number of different religions and cultures.

 Many people will be lighting up a braai, visiting a museum, getting out into nature, spending time with family or even taking a trip to Robben Island, or another iconic Heritage site on Heritage Day. But there are several ways to highlight and celebrate these various cultures and our colourful history on a daily basis.  

One of these ways is to wear a bright and bold Mzansi Mask that is made with a stunning shweshwe print.


History and production of shweshwe pattern

Shweshwe is a printed cotton fabric that is iconic with South Africa, also known as ‘indigo-dyed discharge printed fabric’.  

The material first arrived in South Africa in 1858 when German settlers wore indigo cloth. It was originally available in blue and known as the ‘German print’. The material was produced in Europe and brought to South Africa via the settlers.

The fabric was then presented to King Moshoeshoe as a gift by French missionaries. From there, it became a popular print locally known as shoeshoe and later shweshwe.

Over the years, the fabric has been used by Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana and Pedi people in traditional ceremonies.

Read more about the history of shweshwe in South Africa.  

Shweshwe is made when the cotton fabric is fed through copper rollers that have had the pattern etched into them. This is mixed with a weak acid solution which bleaches out the distinctive designs.  

Traditionally, shweshwe is quite stiff until washed and can be identified by a distinct smell. This is largely because starch was used to preserve the fabric during long sea voyages from the UK to South Africa in the past. This characteristic of the fabric has been retained even though the fabric isn’t at risk of being damaged by damp.

Image credit: wikipedia

Fun facts about shweshwe

Here are some fun facts about the colourful fabric that can help start a conversation this Heritage Day.

  • It is said that the name Shweshwe was derived by the ‘swish’ sound that these skirts make when walking, others say that it is an adaptation of ‘shoeshoe’
  • Although distinctively African, the material has its origins in Europe
  • Indigo cloth was presented to King Moshoeshoe in the early 1840s as a gift
  • While most pieces have distinctive geometric patterns, the prints have evolved to include more colourful, abstract designs
  • The largest producer of shweshwe is Da Gama, based in the Eastern Cape village of Zwelitsha

Image credit: Da Gama textiles

Shweshwe Mzansi Masks

Our locally-made Mzansi Masks come in a range of colours and patterns - including shweshwe. Here are our popular, shweshwe-patterned barrier masks that can be bought on our site, available in adults, teens and kiddies sizes (for select masks).

We also have an incredible lockdown special that includes several of our beautiful shweshwe masks.

Support local

Our masks are handmade in South Africa. By wearing your Mzansi Mask, you’re keeping you and your community protected while supporting a local business.  

Whether you’re living in South Africa, or reside abroad, why not celebrate your cultural heritage with a shweshwe printed Mzansi Mask? You can browse our online store and add your mask (or masks) of choice to the cart.