Straw Work

The History

Creating objects from straw has always been a part of the culture of St Barthélemy. Around 1890 this local craft enjoyed a real boost thanks to the efforts of Father Morvan, who imported seeds and young saplings of the Palmier Sabal, also known as the “Latanier,” from neighboring islands. Just a few years later, in 1925, this modest undertaking was updated when Father de Bryun invited Blanche Petterson, a young Dutch woman from St Martin, to come to Saint Barth. She taught the local women not only how to make Panama hats, but also better techniques for the fabrication of braided straw, and new ways of weaving the “tresses.” This encouraged the creation of many different objects, such as baskets, hats, pocketbooks, fans...

Today, the weaving of straw is done with a great deal of love and patience by some of the older women on the island. Thanks to them, the creation of these little works of art has not been lost over time, and younger generations can discover this traditional aspect of the island’s heritage.

 

The Technique

The latanier palm fronds are prepared in several steps:

  • Drying
  • Creating rolls of woven strips or “basic tresses”
  • Confection of various straw objects Drying : The goal in drying the straw is to obtain the most flexible, and lightest colored fibers as possible.

This is why it is best to only use the youngest fronds found at the top of the trees—preferably fronds not yet fully opened. The fronds can also be selected according to the texture when touched, and according to their intended use. The fronds are cut patiently by hand, then unrolled with each section of the leaf separated.

Next they are hung for 15 days in the sun to dry. At no time should the fronds be exposed to rain, as this can cause them to break, and can cause discoloration. This is why the fronds are taken into the house every night while they are drying.

Rolls of straw: In order to make objects out of straw, it is necessary to create the basic elements that are needed. First, tresses are braided using narrow strips after treating the fronds. So that the final straw work is of the best quality, it is absolutely necessary that the strips be of the same size, and that any thick edges are removed. These “basic tresses” are then rolled, to be easier to use and easier to store.

The fertile imagination of those weaving the straw resulted in various patterns, among which there are seven styles of “basic tresses:

” The “tresses of 11”: these are made, as the name indicates, using 11 strips of straw. The weaving is even, and this is the basic style to make a variety of straw objects.

The “tresses with knots:” this style is made with seven or eleven strips. Decorative knots appear along one edge of this design, which can be used for many different straw objects.

The “tresses with buttons:” this pattern uses 11 strands, like the “tresses with 11,” but small, decorative “buttons” run down the center of the woven strips.

The “open weave:” this style is made with six, eight, or twelve strands. As its name indicates, the tresses are wider, woven in an open pattern and finished with narrower strands.

The “tresses of four:” this is made with four strands of straw woven very loosely to leave openings like in the “open weave” style.

The “tresses with teeth:” this is made with four stands, and the edges are formed like the teeth on a saw. This is sewn onto other styles of weaving as a finished border for the straw objects.

The “tresses of three:” this is made using tree stands of straw woven in a classic style to make long braided lanyards, which are rolled and sewn to create various decorative accents, such as the hearts of the flowers used to ornament bread baskets…

Many of the objects made from straw incorporate one or more styles of “basic tress,” which are usually sewn together. Other, more elaborate objects require more agile fingers as they are created directly as they are woven, such as the straw birds of paradise, extraordinary flowers, and small fish made on the leeward side of the island, as well as various baskets and true Panama hats woven in straw on the windward side.

 
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