Zulu married woman wearing pregnancy apron

The pregnancy apron is unique for its ritual context, symbolism, style of beading, links to heritage and as a relevant part of cross cultural gift exchange.

Called isicwayo/ isidiya/ isibhodiya across Kwazulu-Natal, these aprons were beaded within the clan’s artistic style and features distinguishing these aprons would be: the geographical region of origin, the design, type of beads used and the decade of manufacture.

Pregnancy aprons are still worn in a few remote areas today.

Like other beadwork and costume, pregnancy aprons were indicative of a particular phase of a woman’s life and they had a fleeting lifespan, serving to formulate her identity as a newly married women within the framework of an extended family.

I digress for a minute explaining a little about how local custom differs from other parts of the world:  Zulu men of marriageable age were encouraged to look for brides outside of their family circle or clan. This custom was underpinned by the expression “”…. induku enhle igawulwa izizweni..” ( Hlengiwe Dube. 2009:67) translated as: the good stick/wood is the one {originating} from far off.

The European tendency of individuals to occasionally marry their cousin, didn’t exist. This pairing, in Zulu terms, was simply taboo.  Therefore men cast their net far and wide to catch a suitable bride. Although this practice leads to slight cultural differences in relationships, the intricate rite of bride price, lobola is a process of prolonged negotiation between the families concerned, thereby strengthening ties and fostering observance to ancestral rites and customs. After marriage, the bride was expected to take up residence at her husband’s family home, often some distance from her immediate family.

One may question what this explanation has to do with pregnancy aprons? Well, in terms of the context, it makes the production, the gifting and receiving of this item all the more poignant.

The apron, embodying complex meanings, is an important part of social interaction within the new family.  It was generally beaded by the mother-in-law and given to the new bride.  

Besides the warm act of gifting by the grooms family, the apron also speaks of their positive aspiration for future heirs.  In turn, it acknowledged and recognised the young bride’s role within the family as one capable of perpetuating lineage, and her hopes for a child.

Perhaps psychologically, this was a brilliant way of cutting through social differences and establishing the understanding of roles within the family. This and other accoutrements are worn by the recipient as a show of respect or hlonipa for her in-laws, donned often before she was pregnant in anticipation and acceptance of her future child.

The piece covered the breasts, passing under the armpits and was tied at the back- obscuring the belly and front of the body.

Pregnancy apron, worn by hairdresser, Kwa-Zulu Natal

Modes of prescribed dressing expected by the in-laws, is beautifully explained by Hlengiwe Dube: (2009:33/34)

“…The newly married woman is expected to cover her breasts with isicwayo made out of beads and material, and to wear an apron around her shoulders to respect the new family)”.

Originally, these isicwayo were specifically made from antelope skin and the animal was ritually slaughtered for this purpose. Attaining and manufacturing this apron was a communal family effort, as the antelope was hunted and skin processed according to Barbara Tyrrell (1968:122 ): ”.. Buck skin, killed by the husband and prepared by the father-in –law..”

The significance and reason for hunting a fleet footed antelope symbolised the hope for the future child to be nimble and in good health.

“… Pregnant women wear maternity aprons of antelope skin to impart strength and grace of an antelope to her unborn child…”  H. Dube. (2009:33).

There are also parallels between the use of antelope skin originating in the wild (usually the uncertain domain controlled by the traditional healer) and the unpredictability of pregnancy.

The isidwaba or skin skirt worn by married women is made from bovine hide, originating from the domestic realm, that cattle form part of, whereas the pregnancy apron is made from a wild skin, in a sense linking both realms to maintain balance during pregnancy.

Specifically hunted in the wild and empowered with metal beads, this apron has stronger protective functions for mother and baby. The significance of the apron as part of ritual was evident as the front legs, hooves and occasionally the head were left on the skin, hanging in front of and down each side of the torso.  This could be expressed as a form of sympathetic magic, as the antelope head, facing downwards was symbolically believed to induce an easy birth.  This feature, is apparent in photographs from the early 1900s.

Historically, using particular animal skins, for specific functions reflects an individual’s status and this abstract concept remains rooted within costume production in Kwa-Zulu Natal.

beads and hair
Pregnancy apron, worn by young married woman, early 1900s.

The cured skin was prepared by being shaved in patterns, in certain areas, visually imparting a contrasting hairy- smooth texture to the piece.   A variety of beads then embellished the hairless patches.

From the 1900s till today, large dimension beads were chosen for designs. The large beads projecting outwards, collectively formed a knobbly texture.  Technically, these are often attached directly and individually to the skin or base material.

This is unusual. Zulu beadwork is most often created stringing and linking beads to each other, forming long strips or rectangles, made with the brick in the wall technique (ugcimusizi) amongst others, and these flat mobile pieces are then attached to a skin or cloth backing in the required position.

One could argue, the use of this knobbly technique in beadwork, mirrors the existing aesthetic style where small decorative and practical nodules called amasumpa are carved on wood or attached to clay artefacts. (for more info, please refer to my  blogs on: Zulu milk pails, meat platters.)

It is thought amasumpa replicated the cultural practice of keloid scarification in the early 1900s, also evident on the bodies of women in early photography.  As the pregnancy apron forms the outer “skin” worn over the growing foetus, the choice of this specific bead technique, forming textural nodules on the covering harks back to the ancestors, recalls the brides’ spiritual relationship with them during pregnancy, and therefore would have been a logical addition.

Large beads used on aprons were predominantly metal. Also coloured glass or later plastic after the 1970s. Metal beads were made, bought or acquired from re-purposing.

Occasionally an old brass bead (amaqhulu) smelted and made by Zulu smiths in the late 1800 -1920 and usually worn by woman from important families, was added to an apron and believed to have a protective function.  (Many traditional healers who trained in the early part of the 1900s also wear metal beads for their healing and defensive function).  Wearing metal beads recalls archaeological evidence from Mapungubwe and Tulamela indicating that casting metal beads was an established industry in Southern Africa in the mid thirteenth century.

Antique brass buttons were re-purposed as beads: Some collected from uniforms in the Anglo-Zulu conflicts (1879-96) and passed down by inheritance. Other brass buttons and studs were bought from trading stores in rural areas. 

Stylistically, the pregnancy apron reflects the beading tradition of the in-laws, not that of the brides origination. Designs on pregnancy aprons differ. Some in the lower Drakensberg, Bergville area, worn by the Ngwane, display the dynamic use of negative and positive shapes: The linear placement of brass buttons configured in rows outline and define dramatic geometric features such as diamonds, triangles and circles.

Zulu women, 1904

Diamond shapes, symbolising the female, and x-shapes the male, or triangular derivations thereof, predominate as motifs and imbue a wealth of communication in Zulu beadwork. Besides being worked into rows, conglomerations of shiny brass studs are massed in important areas on the skirt, adding not only visual weight but ritual significance.

The direct clarity and strength of these patterns is subverted by a subtler stylistic design from Msinga.  Here geometric shapes in silhouette are left un-beaded, surrounded by fields of “dots” generated from beads independently attached to the skin or base material. The colours of these beads are communicable, being read by the initiated.

Beading is arranged centrally on the vertical axis of the skin.  Alternately, this section is shaved and left blank.  Both of these methods emphasize the original spinal placement of the animal and beading displays the position of the head at the bottom of the apron.

After the child’s birth, aprons are dismantled and the beads recycled.  These were sometimes used to make an isibhamba (belt worn by the mother after giving birth, to support the stomach).  The antelope skin was turned into a baby carrier.  This was substantiated by Barbara Tyrrell, who wrote that the pelt became the carrying cape for the child.

Hlengiwe Dube  2009: 33 adds that:

“…In some areas of Zululand, after the birth of the child and the removal of the beadwork and studs, the skin is burnt or otherwise destroyed. 

For me, this action embodies the aprons importance. I suggest that within an evolving visual language, the maternity apron is a relic from another time, with a far richer symbolic meanings linked to fertility. It also has a vital protective function during pregnancy and birth. Burning or burying the garment confirms its important link to upholding ancestral custom and intangible heritage.  This action also reflects the way deceased traditional healers’ clothing is handled.

The wearing of ornate maternity aprons, whilst prevalent amongst the Zulu, differed from other Nguni tribes. Amongst the women of Swaziland, skin aprons were shaved into patterns, but worn unadorned.

After the birth of the first child, a simple bead edged rectangle of goatskin was used as the apron, for the next pregnancy.

Buck skin pregnancy aprons in Museum collections are rare. As stated, in their original context some are dismantled, others destroyed.  These aprons were very different from the more decorative style of beadwork typically assembled by many collectors because the ritual content and symbolism is more powerful, the message more direct and the style of beading unusual.

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HLENGIWE DUBE. 2009. Zulu beadwork talk with beads. Africa Direct. Denver, Colorado.

BARBARA TYRRELL. 1968. Tribal peoples of Southern Africa. Books of Africa, Cape Town.