he various incarnations of isishweshwe — Zulu for “blueprint cloth” — help us to understand SA’s history and culture, and its earliest trading with Europeans.
Smell, taste and touch are all engaged in the authentication of isishweshwe fabric by discerning buyers. It is salty to the taste, starchy to the touch and has a distinctive smell. A great deal of information can be gleaned about people from reading their attire: their financial status, fashion consciousness and gender alignment.
In 2019 an exhibition curated by Wieke van Delen and Juliette Leeb-du Toit and titled The isishweshwe Story: Material Woman? was appropriately held at the Iziko Slave Lodge.Leeb-du Toit, an academic and the author of isishweshwe: A History of the Indigenisation of Blueprint in Southern Africa, unpacks the fabric’s complex history. Her book’s photographic references are the primary guides to tracing the history of the fabric.