Ancient native straw plaiting skills survive to create a variety of beautiful and useful straw items
WHAT-TO-DO NASSAU, CABLE BEACH, PARADISE ISLAND - JULY 2006 EDITION
We’ll never know whether Christopher Columbus tried on a straw hat when he arrived in the New World in 1492. But we do know that the Arawaks, who inhabited The Bahamas back then, knew how to plait them.
Making baskets, clothing and head coverings out of natural materials was one of the first survival skills learned by early man. Plaiting is still practiced today but, in the hands of skilled Bahamian ladies, the ancient craft has evolved into an art form.
“It’s hard work,” says Clare Sands of Nassau, but the many things Bahamian plaiters can make are “absolutely beautiful, truly magnificent.”
Both Sands and her shop at Marina Village, in the shadow of the spectacular Atlantis resort, are known far and wide as The Plait Lady. Visitors to the shop are astounded by the variety of straw work for sale: mats, baskets, napkin holders, waste baskets and, of course, hats and bags of all kinds.
Most of Sands’ customers are unaware that her little shop on Paradise Island is only the visible tip of a large but unseen native industry.
While Sands sometimes plaits for pleasure, the real work is being done daily by scores of plait ladies on the Out Islands of The Bahamas.
They collect and plait the straw, which is actually not straw at all but palmetto fronds. Sands explains that plaiters harvest “pond top” and “silver top” only during a new moon. “Top” refers to the young, unopened fronds at the top of palmetto trees. These are dried, cured and cut into strips.
The strips are plaited into rolls, which is the raw material that Sands buys and works with. It takes a full eight-hour day to plait a 10-foot roll, she says. A complex weaving pattern takes longer. There are at least 25 different weaves with names like peas ’n rice, ric-rac and Jacob’s ladder.
A THRIVING INDUSTRY
Sands makes frequent trips to observe the work and buy her rolls. “From the time you collect the top and you’ve finished the roll, it’s a good six weeks,” she says. Sands employs two plaiters to work outside her store on weekends, just to show visitors how it’s done.
The demonstration “gives people a whole new dimension on how this stuff is used,” she says. “All the plaiters are women... they’ve been taught to do this since they were little girls. It’s what used to sustain families, the plait. If you meet someone who plaits, they’re always doing something with their hands.”
Each Out Island has a unique weaving and plaiting style. On Andros, for example, the plaiters are famous for their fanners (used to separate or “riddle” husks from crushed corn) and mats. On Current Island, Eleuthera, plaiters harvest a brittle top, rather than silver top, to make their baskets. Long Islanders give their products a coat of varnish.
Sands employs women in Nassau to sew the rolls into the items she sells in her store. “It’s amazing what you can make,” she says, indicating all the items around her. “We make everything you can think of.”
ANCIENT BAHAMIAN ROOTS
Plaiting is rooted in Bahamian culture having been practiced here for hundreds of years. Few know that it first became an industry back in the 1720s.
Penelope Phenney, wife of the country’s 15th colonial governor, George Phenney, created a market for Bahamian straw products. Using slaves and freed black plaiters, Phenney sold hats and baskets locally for field work, crab gathering and grits storage.
The commercial straw industry died off after the Phenneys returned to England but it was revived in the 1860s when plaiters began to sell items to the first winter tourists. In the 1920s vendors began selling their creations to cruise ship guests from the United States and Canada.
Today’s straw market owes its beginnings to five Bahamian vendors from the settlement of Fox Hill. These vendors, who sold fruit and vegetables in the Farm Rd (now Market St) district, began offering straw bags, baskets and hats. The ladies also sold their wares in Rawson Sq in the days when the SS Miami, one of the first cruise ships to visit Nassau, was berthed at Prince George Dock.
Straw vending grew in popularity with the three-month tourist season. Plaiters from the Out Islands began bringing their work to New Providence to be sold. By the early 1930s cooperative associations were set up to market straw goods.
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor saw straw work as a much-needed revenue earner for Bahamians. In 1943, the Duke, royal governor of The Bahamas at the time, had sheds and stalls built for vendors in Rawson Sq. The Duchess encouraged the teaching of straw crafts at the old Dundas Civic Centre.
Straw plaiters and other vendors have survived two major fires that destroyed their market in downtown Nassau in 1974 and again in 2001. But the baskets and hats are piled higher than ever in open stalls and local shops all over Nassau and, of course, in Clare Sands’ shop.
When you head out to Bay St or Paradise Island hunting souvenirs, bypass the key chains and T-shirts and try on a Bahamian plaited straw hat, just as Columbus may have done.
Disclaimer: The information in this article/release was accurate at
press time; however, we suggest you confirm all details and prices
directly with vendors.