Shweshwe is a beautiful African textile loved for its versatility and iconic design.

But when it comes to preparing and washing shweshwe fabric for the first time before sewing, its traditional origin, pure cotton softness and deep, striking hues may make you a little uncertain on how to proceed whilst maintaining its colour and quality.

In this guide, we detail six simple steps on how to wash and prime this beautiful African fabric from start to finish.

We also include best practices on dealing with starchdrying, and ironing.

Let’s get started.

Why Should Shweshwe Fabric be Washed Before Sewing?

  1. Removes starch. Stiffness and a starchy smell are the first things you likely noticed when encountering new shweshwe fabric for the first time. Starch is applied to provide protection  during the manufacture and transport process, and is vital for fabric quality. Washing shweshwe the correct way removes starch and reveals its soft cotton qualities.
  2. Encourages colour bleeding.  Wash shweshwe before sewing for the perfect opportunity for fabric colours to bleed. Bleeding refers to the dye leeching out during washing and is often seen with authentic 3 Cats Shweshwe due to its intense and high-quality colour pigments.
    Remember, not washing prior to sewing may result in some unpleasant surprises. For example, colours may bleed and transfer from one part onto another, forming an ugly colour mix that could alter your colour scheme or ruin a garment altogether.
  3. Promotes preshrinking. Made of 100% pure natural cotton, shweshwe is susceptible to shrinking much like other cotton fiber textiles. In severe cases, cotton garments can shrink up to two sizes smaller after its first wash. Prewashing shweshwe helps prevent this.

Here’s How to Wash Shweshwe Fabric:


Step 1: Start removing starch by soaking in cold water

As explained, shweshwe is treated with starch to protect the fabric before use. Fortunately, this is easily removed during the washing process.

Submerge the fabric in a tub or bath of cold water and gently agitate the material with your hands. Leave the shweshwe to soak for at least 15-25 minutes. Afterwards, lightly squeeze and knead to remove any excess water. Be careful not to wring or twist the material excessively.

Step 2: Choose only sensitive, high quality cleaning agents

Two main things to keep in mind are the sensitivity of shweshwe’s colour and pure cotton weave.

Bleach and harsh detergents should always be avoided. Similarly, be extra careful with the popular darker hues such as indigo, brown, and burgundy.

Remember the following when selecting your cleaning agents:

  • Use only delicate or sensitive detergent.
  • Avoid bleach, rubbing (isopropyl) alcohol, and similar substances.
  • Avoid cheap and unknown detergent brands
  • Washing powder or liquid detergent are both acceptable options.
  • Fabric softener is optional

Step 3: Machine wash shweshwe fabric on a gentle cycle between 30-40 °C

A washing machine is the most effective way for washing shweshwe. Doing so on a gentle machine setting is perfect for acceptable levels of shrinkage and bleeding, whilst also ensuring a thorough clean and starch-removal.

Here’s how:

Set the washing machine on a gentle or delicate spin cycle and set the water temperature to 30-40 °C. Add your cleaning agent and fabric softener (optional) in the detergent drawer.

Cleaning agents should not be poured into the drum or on the material directly. Place smaller fabric pieces in a mesh or lingerie laundry bag for extra protection.

Begin the cycle.

Step 4: Rinse briefly in cold water to remove any traces of remaining starch

This step makes certain that all traces of starch are removed. It’s important for not only removing stiffness and smell, but also for priming the fabric to dry.

Remove your shweshwe from the washing machine within a few minutes after the washing cycle is complete. Give the fabric a very quick rinse in cold water and, as in Step 1, squeeze and knead the material lightly without excessive wringing or twisting.

Step 5: Dry on a clothesline in shade or semi-shade until slightly damp 

Studies show that tumble dryers, dry cleaning and, direct sunlight can seriously damage pure cotton With shweshwe, you can expect these laundry methods to harm the fabric with excessive shrinkage, creasing, and colour damage. Abrasion, tearing, and cracking may also occur over time.

Fortunately, the best way to dry shweshwe is also the simplest option:

Air dry on a clothesline out of direct sunlight; The fabric should be folded in half and pinned on each end. Shade or semi-shade are both acceptable.

Importantly, remove the fabric from the line before it completely dries. It should still be damp at this stage.

Step 6: Damp iron whilst using a pressing cloth

Proper ironing is the final touch in perfecting your shweshwe fabric after its first wash.

The fabric is receptive to two simple ironing techniques which go a long way towards removing creases and wrinkles and preventing sheen and discoloration.

Adopt these guidelines when ironing shweshwe:

  • Damp iron; Cotton is best ironed when damp and shweshwe is no exception. Start ironing soon after removing the fabric from the line, as explained in Step 5. If there’s a delay and the fabric is close to drying, re-moisten with the iron’s built-in sprayer or use a spray bottle for larger fabric.
  • Generously use the steam setting on the iron for removing sharper creases and wrinkles. However, avoid spray starch.

All done! With your shweshwe now suitably washed, dried, and ironed, cutting and sewing can finally begin.

Remember, maintaining the quality of shweshwe once transformed into your beautiful garment or accessory is equally important. Be sure to always avoid bleach, harsh machine cycles, and vigorous drying to enjoy long-lasting strength and vibrant colors.

We’re here to help

Do you have any concerns when it comes to laundry, washing and caring for your shweshwe fabric? Looking to buy authentic material or need some tips for your design? Deluxe Fabrics has been in the fabric industry since the 1970s, and our team are happy to share the first-hand knowledge we’ve gained over the years.

Contact us  today or browse our online shweshwe store to learn more.