In South Africa, shweshwe, the ubiquitous colorful geometrically patterned wax-printed fabric, was first integrated into the traditional dress of Xhosa women. The patterns and colors used in these fabrics are often richly symbolic and distinctly.
In Ghana, the Ashanti people’s kente cloth is traditionally made from the black and white fibers of the raffia tree, before being dyed by natural dyes made from seeds and tree bark. The colors used are significant - for example black signifies the African continent while red represents the blood of the forefathers. To become a recognized Master Weaver, a Ghanaian artist must also learn all the meanings of the many different geometric patterns used in kente cloths such as the afa pattern which means “I have taken it” or the ohene anewa which means “The king’s eye, the king sees everything”.
The ubiquitous wax-printed kanga or kitenge cloth (traditionally worn sarong-style or as a headwrap and popular across eastern and southern Africa) is as commonly found printed with colorful patterns as with portraits of political leaders. The kanga cloth (from the old Swahili word ‘to wrap') is thought to have originated on the coast of East Africa in the 19th century. Kitenge (also known as chitenge or maphae) is very similar to the kanga cloth and is worn across central and southern Africa. The combinations of patterns and colors is seemingly endless and along with the wax printed shweshwe fabrics, kitenge fabrics are what you will most commonly find used in local fashion in Joburg.
Recently, with the rise in trend of African fashion, many other countries are manufacturing African fabrics. It is common for African designers to import African fabrics from countries like China manufacturing them which they use in their local designs. The usual excuse is that designers can’t seem to find local fabric stores with good quality fabric. However, we have researched and come up with quite a number of local fabric shops that focus on selling African fabrics in Johannesburg. Here are a few of them you need to check out.
WHERE TO SHOP
1. BRYANSTON ORGANIC AND NATURAL MARKET
This the best market to visit if you are looking for high quality fabrics made according to traditional methods and organically and ethically sourced. For handmade ready-to-wear clothing that meshes cultures from around Africa check out African Renaissance and also look out for the stall specializing in beautiful woven Ethiopian shawls. The market’s free shuttle picks up visitors at all the major Sandton hotels at 09:00, 10:00 and 13:00, with a return trip via Liliesleaf museum. 40 Culross Rd, Bryanston. Open Thu and Sat 09:00–15:00.
2. ORIENTAL PLAZA
Visit Fordsburg's famous Oriental Plaza, one of the city’s most famous fabric shopping destinations with more than 350 stores selling everything from homeware and shoes to jewellery and clothing. There are fabric shops galore, fast fashion, and haberdashery from around Africa and Asia including hand-stitched Indian cotton quilts, a wide range of kanga cloths and even Swazi ilihhiya fabrics printed with the images of the Swazi royal family. 38-60 Lilian Ngoyi St, Fordsburg. Closed Sun.
3. ROSEBANK ART AND CRAFT MARKET
Barter for bright ready-to-wear Afro-chic fashion and fabrics at this huge African art and craft market that is easily one of Joburg’s biggest. This is a one-stop spot for all your African souvenir needs with traders from across the continent selling the widest range of hand-crafted items. Also look out for the weekly Rosebank Sunday Market on the Rosebank Mall rooftop. Rosebank Mall, Craddock Ave (next to Europa Cafe), Rosebank.
4. WORK SHOP NEW TOWN
This stylish shopping emporium is housed in the historic Potato Sheds first built in 1911 as part of Joburg's original fruit and vegetable market in Newtown. There are dozens of small stores to choose from showcasing local designers and crafters. For fabrics head to Ndlovukazi where there's a carefully curated selection of fabrics from across the continent, neatly arranged by country. Cnr Miriam Makeba St and Gwigwi Mrwebi St, Newtown
5. DIAGONAL STREET
Busy Diagonal Street in the city center was at the heart of Joburg’s early gold rush and developed into a racially mixed area where trading continued despite the proscriptive laws later introduced. Today a mix of old-fashioned low-rise architectural styles characterizes the area. The street is lined by traders and shops selling a wide selection of goods including traditional Basotho blankets, kanga cloths, brightly striped Venda nwenda cloths with their distinctive luminous colors and traditional accessories like canes and beaded jewellery. Dress for the city in this area and leave your valuables at the hotel. Runs diagonally between Sauer St and Ntemi Piliso St, City Centre.
6. FASHION KAPITOL
The heart of Joburg’s original clothing manufacturing district, this rejuvenated city square is a hub for fashion talent with a nearby fashion college. Fashion Kapitol has an outdoor catwalk to showcase the latest designs from students and designers who have shops there. Check out the massive Studio 109 opposite the square for the biggest selection of wax-print fabrics and Three Cats shweshwe (the brand that first made shweshwe material in South Africa). 130 Pritchard St, City Centre. Closed Sun.
Makotis (meaning ‘bride’ in Zulu) is run by the Wadee family who have been selling traditional fabrics and bespoke garments, including clothing for traditional weddings, since 1961. Browse for unique shweshwe fabrics in the biggest range of colors and prints, and then arrange a fitting with the tailor. 112 Helen Joseph St, City Centre. Closed Sun.