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Friday, 19 May 2017

Sasha Celebration Weekend 2017 - part 8

This post is all about my international costume entries in the Sasha Celebration weekend.

I think everyone who entered a costume or two in the Sasha Celebration weekend this year had a personal reason for choosing the country or region that they did, and so it was for me.

I was born in South Africa and grew up with colourful patterns on fabric all around me.  As a child I had the pleasure of browsing through rolls of fabric in the Grand Parade market in front of the City Hall, in many fabric shops in Cape Town, Mowbray, Rosebank, Claremont and Pinelands, absorbing the textures and patterns of different fabric types and gaining inspiration for sewing projects.

I was also lucky enough to travel around the country as a child on camping holidays and have never forgotten those incredible experiences.  One place I particularly loved was The Kingdom of Lesotho which we visited during an epic camping trip in the Christmas holidays of 1978.  After Lesotho we went to Natal then spent Christmas in Swaziland at a game reserve, before continuing our journey via the Blyde River Canyon to Johannesburg to see my cousins.  We saw Bushman paintings under an overhanging rock face in southern Lesotho, camped in a churchyard nearby (with permission) and then in a proper campsite where Basotho boys wrapped in their traditional blankets tried to sell us one of their push along toy vehicles made entirely from scrap metal and wire.
Me with two Basotho boys in Lesotho, between them is a toy vehicle they had made
My mother bought us a Basotho blanket each at a market in Maseru and mine still has my Girl Guide and Brownie badges sewn onto it. On that trip we also got our own Basotho grass hats.  Some years ago I got a miniature version of one of these hats and have kept it with my doll collection ever since, waiting for a time to use it.  The theme for this years Sasha Celebration Weekend at last gave me a reason to make a costume to go with the hat.

History of The Kingdom of Lesotho

The Sotho people gathered in the high mountains near the Drakensburg of Southern Africa in the early 19th century, lead by King Moshoeshoe I.  They called the area Basutoland.  Conflicts in the 19th century with the Afrikaaner Trekboers who were moving north looking for land to settle meant the Sotho appealed to Queen Victoria and the country became a British Protectorate in 1868.  Basutoland gained its independence from the British in 1966 and became Lesotho, which means ’the land of the people of who speak Sesotho’.  You can see Basutoland on an old map of British possessions in 1885 at

The Traditional Basutho blanket

Queen Victoria gave King Lerotholi Letsie a blanket as a gift in 1897.  He draped it over his shoulders and the Basotho blanket wearing tradition began. The blankets are worn as part of everyday life.  The unique designs use various symbols, bold colour combinations and a characteristic pin-stripe, originally a weaving fault, is integral to the design and meanings. The pin-stripe is worn running vertically symbolising growth.  The corncob (mielie) is the most widely used motif as maize is a staple food in Lesotho so the corncob is a symbol of fertility and growth. Basotho blankets are made from wool which provides protection from the wind, rain and cold of the high mountain Kingdom.  Basotho heritage blankets are manufactured exclusively by Aranda.

The Basotho hat

The conical grass Basotho hat (mokorotlo) with its distinctive woven topknot is the symbol of Lesotho as it depicts the mountain tops of Lesotho, specifically Mount Qiloane, which is conical and has a topknot.  The hat appears on the Lesotho flag.

Making the Basotho outfit

I made the doll Basotho blanket from a piece of grey felt with a traditional blanket design marked on it then painted with fabric paint.  I included the pin-stripe lines.  I had chosen to copy the classic corn cob pattern.

Reuben's Basotho blanket - painted felt
I used shweshwe fabric and white cotton for Reuben's dashiki, using the traditional chocolate colour patterned fabric.
Closeup of Reuben wearing his hat and his shweshwe decorated dashiki

Shweshwe fabric and the Xhosa people of South Africa

I decided to dress Melanie and Nina in shweshwe fabric as well, with Melanie representing the Xhosa people.  When I was at primary school we learned a little Xhosa and I can still remember the words to a good morning greeting song we learned (there is nothing like music to make words stick in your mind).
Molweni Nonke, Ndiphilile unjani, Siya impilo enkosi, Kunjani Kuwe

Rough translation:

Hello everyone, I'm fine how are you, we thank you and good health, how are you
The Xhosa, also known as the red blanket people, are an ethnic Bantu / Nguni group of several tribes related to the Zulu.  They settled in the Eastern Cape of Southern Africa as the Bantu peoples migrated south while European settlers Afrikaaner Trekboers were moving north from Cape Town. In the apartheid era black people were not allowed South African citizenship, the Xhosa had designated ‘self-governing homelands’ called Transkei and Ciskei in the Eastern Cape (both of which I have visited).  Their language isiXhosa has 15 click sounds. Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba (‘click song’ - Qongqothwane) were well known Xhosa people. 
The Xhosa adopted the indigo patterned shweshwe fabric which was introduced to Southern Africa in the 19th century by German and Swiss missionaries and floral, striped, diamond, square and circular geometric African designs for the fabric have emerged. It is called shweshwe for Basotho King Moshoeshoe I who adopted it in the 1840s. In Xhosa shweshwe is known as ujamani. Shweshwe is used to make dresses, skirts, wraparound clothes and aprons.  

In Xhosa culture ujumani / shweshwe is traditionally worn by the bride (Makoti) and has been incorporated into their ochre (red) blanket clothing.  It is used extensively in contemporary South African fashion design for men and women of all ethnic groups.  It is made with an acid discharge and roller printing technique on pure cotton fabric.  Various colours are used: the original indigo, chocolate brown and red as well as vibrant pinks, greens, oranges, purples and turquoise. The intricate designs were originally made with picotage - an expensive pinning fabric printing technique now replaced with modern fabric printing techniques.  Genuine shweshwe is manufactured exclusively by Da Gama Textiles in King Williams Town, Eastern Cape, Three Cats being one of the original pattern brands.

The headscarf, called iqhiya in Xhosa, is tied in different ways according to status and event (childhood, marriage, motherhood, seniority and experience). 

Xhosa beads

Xhosa beadwork is famous and distinctive, indicating social status. They adorn their traditional clothing with colourful tiny glass beads.  Before the Portuguese traders introduced these to Africa, they used natural materials for their beads.  They also make necklaces and bracelets of beads, worn around ankles (intsimbi or amaso) and wrists (imitsheke). 

The bead colours have meanings: white - great wishes, green - prosperity, red - blood of the cow used for the ritual, black - darkness being purged away as a result of the ritual, orange - sunrise, gold - sunset.  Wire art beaded ornaments and toys also emerged from Xhosa crafting.
Melanie in her iqhiya, beads and shweshwe dress

The dresses I made

The contemporary dress which Melanie wore was inspired by the traditional styles of horizontal lines in Xhosa clothing and features several shweshwe patterns.  I looked at lots of pictures of traditional and modern fashion clothes which use the fabric and in the end decided to go contemporary.  I didn't want to dress her as a Makoti, rather as a maiden who was nearly ready to marry and was attending a friend's wedding, so she isn't dressed in the full Makoti costume or the orange blankets and aprons. The piece of fabric I used had ten different pattern bands printed in the fabric and was the perfect scale for a 16 inch doll. The dress is a strip of fabric with elastic gathering at the top of the back to make it fit nicely around her chest.  The remaining 3 pattern bands were used for the headscarf with a contrasting pattern of indigo fabric making the scarf double sided.
Channels for the elastic in the top back of the dress
Inside of the top of the dress, showing the ends of the elastic channels and also, if you look carefully, the Three Cats logo printed on the inside of the fabric
The elastic gathering at the back of the dress before turning it the right way out
The necklace is similar to those worn at weddings by both bride and guests. I made it from a long South African bead necklace stitched to a woven bracelet I found in a charity shop.

Melanie's imitsheke are a bead bracelet double wrapped around her wrist and an African bead spectacles chain.

The headscarf, called iqhiya in Xhosa, is tied in different ways according to status and event (childhood, marriage, motherhood, seniority and experience). 

For baby Nina I made a dress, hat and panties from pink shweshwe in two different patterns.  I had seen the combination of those two particular fabrics made into a child's dress in Mnandi Textile & Design shop in Observatory when I bought the shweshwe fat quarters during my visit to Cape Town in March this year.  The dress I made is fully reversible.  I made the same dress for the raffle prize in the indigo colours of two different patterns, but not entirely reversible (only the hat can be worn both ways).
Reuben, Nina and Melanie at home just after their African costumes were complete
Nina in her pink shweshwe dress and hat
Nina changed out of her dress into the raffle dress to for the following photos at home just before the Sasha Celebration weekend.

Reuben, Nina and Melanie in blue and chocolate brown shweshwe
Nina wears the shweshwe raffle dress later won by Jane W
The underwear in the contrasting indigo pattern
In the display I added the information about the costumes and a wire and bead gecko along with a miniature tin can car which I got during my recent trip to Cape Town.

Melanie, Nina and Reuben on display in their African costumes at the Sasha Celebration Weekend
Reuben, Nina and Melanie in the photo studio
It was a lot of fun making these costumes for the Sasha Celebration Weekend and thinking of the African places I've been fortunate enough to visit.


twizel said...

I loved the costumes and the history behind them. The hat is amazing as are your sewing skills. Thanks for sharing your story.

Anonymous said...

Lovely to read the reasons for the lovely costumes you made and the perfect opportunity to display and talk about the background of the wonderfully styled hat, Viv.

Dee said...

Wonderful outfits and lovely details and story behind them. I thought that hat was amazing.
So nice that you could use traditional fabric for their outfits, tying it all together.

So many wonderful costumes at the event , they were a joy to see.

Gregor Daddies said...

Beautiful costumes! I love the fabric patterns. I think the pattern on the blanket would look quite lovely painted on a tile.

miniaturista said...

unas ropas preciosas que los hace mas guapos si cabe.
Un abrazo

NeverUschi said...

The outfits are gorgeous! So much attention to details - and thank you for the most interesting background information. It's great you could use original African fabrics for your project.
I LOVE Reuben's hat.

Lizzo said...

Wonderful blog posting! The African outfits and background information are outstanding. I have visited all of the places you mentioned. Memories!
Liz from Minnesota

Angelo's Papa said...

Thank you for this informative posting. I read it with great interest. The outfits you made are quite exceptional and illustrate what you wrote. This is a great read.