Bundles of Elephant Grass
Material: Elephant Grass
Elephant grass derives its name from being a favorite food and hiding place for elephants. Elephant grass does not grow in the Upper East region of Ghana where our artisans live. It is brought to the region by middle men who make it their business to harvest and prepare the grass for weaving. The stalk of the grass is used to weave and is purchased by the bundle. To ensure the maximum amount of money is put into the hands of our artisans, we buy the straw in bulk during the growing season and store it in the straw bank built in cooperation with Whole Foods Market. The harvesting of the grass is done by cutting and is completely sustainable.
Dye: A mixture of natural and chemical dyes
The natural dyes are obtained from trees, sorghum, ash and other plants in Ghana. The chemical dyes come from various West African countries. The artisans mix colors like red, yellow, green and orange to create other colors such as brown, black and lime green. The artisans do not follow traditional rules of color mixing when mixing the dye. Depending on the color the artisan wants to achieve, they simply mix the colors they think are best and generally never follow the same formula twice. All of the dyes used are safe for humans. In fact, the artisans sometimes boil peanuts as they boil their dyes, giving them brightly colored peanuts! Or they use the same pots to cook their food as they do to dye straw. Thanks to Whole Foods Market, we were able to build a dyeing kitchen for our artisans.
Weaving Technique: ‘over/under’ technique, which enables the artisan to create beautiful patterns and shapes
Handles: straw wrapped with goat leather
Time Frame: It takes the average Ghanaian artisan 2.5 days to weave a basket.
Material: Raffia palm and banana leaf stalk
The banana leaf stalk comes from a particular kind of banana plant in Uganda. It is not like the banana plant that grows the sweet banana most Americans are familiar with. The raffia palm grows up to 16 meters tall and is remarkable for its compound pinnate leaves, the longest in the plant kingdom. The artisans often hire young men to harvest the raffia palm, which grows in dense brush. Not all artisans have immediate access to the raffia palm, but it does grow relatively abundantly throughout the Mpigi and Wakisu districts where our artisans live. The banana plants used for the internal materials are readily available and are often planted by the artisans around their homes. They eat the fruit and then use the stalks of the leaves to weave. The harvesting of the leaves of both plants encourages the growth of new leaves and is completely sustainable.
Dye: They are primarily imported from Kenya and are purchased by the gram as powder in the local market place.
Material Preparation: Harvesting the raffia palm takes skill. You have to climb the palm to reach the tender leaves, which is difficult since there are no branches. The leaves are cut off, which encourages new growth. The leaf is then split in half; each half is dried and split again several more times, forming many independent fibers. The fibers are bundled together and wrapped with raffia to create our baskets.
The raffia is the very thin membrane of the leaf that is carefully pulled off, much like we would pull the veins off celery. The goal is to harvest it in one long strip. The drying of the raffia is very important. If the artisan just lays it out flat in the sun, it will shrivel up and cannot be used to weave. Our artisans carefully wrap it around grasses and weeds. This ensures the raffia dries in a manner which allows them to weave with it. When dried, the raffia is an off-white color. It’s boiled in dye to be colored and then dried again using the same wrapping process.
Weaving Technique: ‘coil’ technique
The banana stalk is bundled about 6 to 7 pieces per row, and the raffia palm is wrapped around them to create various colors and patterns. As the palm is wrapped around the leaf stalk, the artisan begins to coil or create a circle with the material. To join the various layers together, they use a needle and palm to ‘sew’ a stitch every few inches to hold the basket layers together. These stitches must be carefully considered as they can be visible.
Time Frame: It takes the average Ugandan artisan 2 days to weave a basket.
Material: Sea grass and date palm
The sea grass is grown in the Bay of Bengal hundreds of miles from our artisans and must be transported by truck. The date palm leaves grow very abundantly throughout the country.
Dye: Imported and no further information is available at this writing.
Material Preparation: The sea grass is wrapped with date palm leaves.
Those leaves are harvested from the stalk and then laid in the sun to dry. It takes about 2-3 days to dry the leaves which require regular turning to ensure they dry evenly.
Weaving Technique: “coil” technique
Artisans wrap the date palm around the sea grass and every few inches the date palm is “sewn” to the layer beneath it using a needle about six inches long–this holds the entire basket together. As the artisans weave, the date palm being pulled around the sea grass makes a squeaking noise, much like sneakers on a wet floor.
Time Frame: It takes the average Bengali artisan 1.5 days to weave a basket.
Material: Lepironia articulata – known locally as Mahampy and in English as sedge
This plant grows in marshes along the East Coast of Madagascar close to the Agnalazaha Forest nature reserve. This forest is home to many rare species of plants and animals including the endangered white-collared brown lemur. The villagers of Mahabo-Mananivo walk several miles to collect this sedge. Once considered a weed, it is now valued as a cash crop and is even being planted by nearly a dozen artisans. The harvesting of the Mahampy is done by cutting and is completely sustainable.
Dye: Imported and no further information is available at this writing.
Material: White and black bamboo
In Indonesia these materials are considered an invasive plant that is encroaching on the native forests. The harvesting of the bamboo is done by cutting and is completely sustainable.
Blessing Baskets from Indonesia have two colors, brown and white. The brown color is from black bamboo and the white is the internal part of the white bamboo.
Material Preparation: The sedge is first cut from the marsh and dried in the sun.
Once dry, it is “kneaded” into a whitish clay mixture to coat each piece and allowed to dry again. Then, using the point of a needle it is split in half and each half split again into 4 very thin strips. These strips are boiled in dye for a few minutes and laid out to dry once again. Only then can the artisan begin to weave.
Weaving Technique: Created by our head artisan, Pac Udin.
After importing his baskets to the United States via Ten by Three, his special pattern gained attention throughout Indonesia. Udin starts with thin strips of bamboo woven in an “over/under” pattern creating a grid. The woven grid is then placed over any object to create the desired shape. The bamboo can take nearly any shape. The objects Udin uses include square boxes, traffic cones and even the top of a propane tank. He gently presses the bamboo around the object to create the beginning shape of the basket.
The first grid is woven with black bamboo and shaped; then the white bamboo is introduced and also woven in an “over/under” pattern creating a second layer to the grid. Finally additional strips of white bamboo are carefully woven into the pattern by inserting it row by row to create the star appearance. A thick band of black bamboo is placed around the edge and nailed into place to ensure the basket holds its shape. Finally the baskets are sprayed with lacquer to give them a shiny smooth appearance.
Time Frame: It takes the average Indonesian artisan 1.5 days to weave a basket.
Papua New Guinea
Material: A vine from the fern family known as Gleichenia
The stalk of the Gleichenia is used to create the different layers of the basket and the inside part of the plant is used to “knit” the layers together. The vine can grow to a considerable height and the fronds can be very dense, particularly on the edges of the forest. The major cause of destruction of the vines is fire. The plants are so adaptive that after been burned to the ground new growth can be seen within three days. Quality baskets are woven from MATURE plants and the materials are completely sustainable. By cutting and pulling the mature plants out from the tangled and dense sites, the artisans are actually maintaining the population of Gleichenia and preventing the dense pile of mature plants from being susceptible to fire which protects the forest.
The white is the inside part of the mature Gleichenia with green leaves. The brown is the inside part of the mature Gleichenia and the black color is derived by soaking the Gleichenia vine in the mud of a nearby creek.
Material Preparation: The different colored materials are prepared in different ways.
If the artisan wants to use the natural brown color of the vine, virtually no material preparation is necessary except wetting the vine–this not only cleans it but makes it pliable for weaving. If the artisan wants a lighter color to help create patterns they use a machete, carefully stripping the darker outer coating off the vine while it lies across their arm. Some artisans also strip the vine using a can with a hole punched in either side. They then pull the vine through it which strips off the brown outer coating.
Weaving Technique: “Coil” weaving pattern and “stitched” together with the Gleichenia
Similar to the artisans in Uganda, the artisans of Papua New Guinea use a “coil” weaving pattern and “stitch” each row together with the Gleichenia.
Papua New Guinea artisans use a needle imbedded into a dowel which helps them “stitch” their coils together. During the weaving process, either the white, brown or mud dyed vine is carefully introduced to create intricate patterns. (See the picture above)
Time Frame: It takes the average Papua New Guinean artisan 5 days to weave a basket.