A Case of the Blues

I've always had a thing for blue. When I was young it was hands-down my favorite color. While I'd no longer say that was true (because I can no longer imagine narrowing myself to ONE color), I still find myself drawn to it again and again. So when I got an opportunity to write about indigo, I was pleased, both visually and as a writer.

The article appears in the most recent issue of Stitch. I tell you, I get started researching these things and become so fascinated...indigo has an ancient history as a treasured dye, and like so many textile-related things, affected national economies and policy worldwide. In addition to learning about indigo, I had the opportunity to finally write about shweshwe, a fabric that I've had a real obsession with for quite a few years.

I first encountered shweshwe in one of my favorite quilt shops—Eagle Creek in Shakopee, Minnesota. At first glance it reminded me of an old-fashioned calico. But the minute I picked up the bolt I realized it's another beast entirely. First, the fabric is only 36" wide. The second striking thing is that it's as stiff as a board (it washes up to a lovely softness). Intrigued, I bought a few fat quarters and used them in a quilt I made for my aunt. (The shweshwe is mixed in with many other blue fabrics above. The pattern is from a several-year-old Quilt Sampler. If you're interested, leave me a message and email address and I'll let you know which issue it's in.)

I could find little out about the fabric until I found the folks from Marula Imports at Quilt Market. There I learned that shweshwe comes not only in blue, but red and brown (blue is still my favorite). It was first created by the Dutch and shipped to South Africa for sale, where it was snapped up by locals. In 1980 production moved to South Africa. The Da Gama company, which produces the 3 Cats line (check the back of the fabric for the distinctive logo), is environmentally and socially conscious, providing jobs for many skilled and unskilled workers (it's 40 percent worker-owned) and uses cotton from an emerging South African market. So not only is it lovely, but you can feel good about using it.

The only problem I've had with it is that the dye will run for a long time if not properly laundered. Marula has great washing tips on their web site, along with all sorts of background and other info on shweshwe.

A few years back a friend of my husband's casually mentioned he was going to South Africa and did I need anything. I mentioned my love of this fabric and as it turned out, this non-sewing, pediatric intensive disease specialist ended up visiting quilt shops and learning all about shweshwe. And he brought me back the lovely yardage above. Not sure that he's a converted quilter, but in the end he didn't seem to mind tracking it down for me. What a pal!