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Understanding raffia.

I love raffia. Within days of discovering the fibre, I was right into it. I use it a lot, and it's my preferred core for basket making. Also, as a retailer, a lot of raffia has passed between my hands this year. So I'm starting a series of posts on the unspoken things about raffia. If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments!

Plain raffia is actually one of this store's top selling items so I know you guys are also pretty inspired to use it. However, I get plenty of queries about raffia (and basket making!), how to use it, and I'm sure many more folks would love to try it but don't know where to start. So, this is the article I should have written moons ago. All our raffia, both from Nutscene and our natural basic raffia comes from Madagascar and is dyed and prepared there. (I must get stories about this to share later.)

So, how about you? Maybe you took a basket weaving class, or liked the idea so went and bought raffia but not sure where to start? I hear ya!

Understanding a little about the raffia plant and fibre has a few benefits:

  • You'll get better use from your raffia stash
  • Understand how the structure of the fibres can help in basketry
  • It may even make your work stronger, more solid and improve overall structural integrity.

Alright!

Anatomy 101

Keeping it real brief here:

Raffia is made from the segments of the leaves on the Palmyra palm, a tree native to Madagascar. Yep, on a palm tree, the 'leaf' is actually what many of us might look at and call a 'whole branch' - so the leaves on the raffia palm are typically 10 metres long or more, and the segments are dried and shredded 'leafy bits' becoming the raffia fibre we use. These vary in length depending on their position on the leaf. Segments range in length from 1-2 metres; with the shortest strands coming from the base and tip, and longest, best quality strands coming from the middle.

So, taking these segments, and skipping over particulars of raffia leaf processing almost entirely, we end up with a bunch of long, strips of raffia palm which is ready to use for myriad crafts.

Inspect your raffia:

1kg bundles look like this:

And are tied up at one end like this (which is obviously cut nice and tidy):

When you buy smaller lots, generally they will still be tied in a bundle at one end but it won't be this tidy. The raffia leaves bundled this way in Madagascar are done so when they're still a bit wet to achieve the excellent compaction you get in a hank. As you'd know, if you've ever just opened up one kilogram of raffia to have it amazingly and instantly take over the interior volume of your home.

Ha! Just kidding, kinda.

Take a strand of raffia. Where the segments were once attached to the petiole (the branchy bit of the tree), you should notice towards one end of the raffia is thinner and harder and the end might have a little hairy bit. See how this end is different to the other end, which was possibly cut? This harder, thin part towards the end will fold over easily and make a hard point. Like this, below:

At the other end, the fibre will look thinner, flatter, wider, and feel much fluffier. I didn't really take a picture of that end.

And...?

If you're using it for giftwrapping, you won't care about any of this. If you're interested in using raffia in basketry, all these properties will be something to notice, eventually.

If you need to keep feeding raffia into the core of your basket, or woven vessel, you could really go about it however you want. However, I find that it is fairly easy to take a few strands at the thin pointy end, fold them over in a little bunch and they will easily slide a few stitches back when pushed into the core. Something like this:

Needless to mention, the harder, pointy end is also much easier to thread through a sewing needle for basketry.

The lighter end though, is great because it has the bulk and flow to it. If you're finishing a basket, say by wrapping wrapping around the top, it will sit nice and flat and give better consistency, like I've done here:

Raffia scraps

No one wants to throw out raffia. As you go through your bundle, there will be really fine bits that come off when you try to separate the strands. I mean super fine, like as thin as cotton thread, but of course, as strong as raffia. I may not have all the uses in the world for this stuff, but I don't throw all of it out - you can seriously stitch with it! Raffia is incredibly strong, as you may have learned if you ever needed to cut some but couldn't be arsed getting up to find scissors.

So my best practice approach to the notion of 'raffia scraps' is some kind of grading system, where I accumulate raffia into piles (bags? baskets stashes?) of varying grades and thicknesses of raffia strands. And just like I would with yarn, eventually there are projects which are just right for using up the scraps.

A note on dyed raffia

If you're staring at a strand of dyed raffia and wondering what on earth I'm on about, that's also a point of interest! It is my general opinion that any kind of dyeing raffia weakens it. If you're using natural raffia, after a while you'll notice your hands get a super grip, and feel a bit waxy. Any dye that takes to raffia must first penetrate that waxy layer and I'm guessing that contributes in some way to its great strength. Some dyes take to raffia (like acid dyes) by breaking this down, and making the fibre weaker (and I've noticed certain colours make this worse than others) and other dyes seem to be almost 'coating' the fibre - which is great for retaining strength, but means that some of the colour is going to come off on your hands and clothing because it hasn't fully penetrated the fibre to take.

I'll leave this first post at that, and I'm keen to get your thoughts! I think talking and explaining these details might be useful to many people, so if there's something you'd like to share, please do! Remember, I'm not an expert - but I want to share the things I've discovered by myself, along the way.

 

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Comments

Judith Howard

Judith Howard said:

Cass
Brilliant…who would have thunk?
Thanks for the facts on plain ol’ rafia.
PLUS your writing Is incredibly informative, chatty and interestingly descriptive.
I am looking forward to next instalment.
Thanks
Judith

Jasse Walton

Jasse Walton said:

Hello Cass – good beginning article, & I concur with Judith above about your direct but chatty writing style. The botanical name for raffia is ‘raphia’.

As to the fine strands you mention above – if I’m working on a basket, sometimes I will strip the weaving piece of raffia into halves (or even thirds if it’s a wide piece), & I noticed over time I was throwing out a heap of these strands.

Being a tad thrifty, [my dear old Dad would have been proud of me] I started collecting them, & wondering just what I could do with them. I like to make baskets in two or three (or more) contrasting colours, & I started keeping my fine strands in clumps of these contrasting colours. I thought maybe I could use them as a multi-coloured core material.

I employ the Noble Peg to keep them all together & hang them up on the wall in the laundry to store them. I bought some of those cheap stick-on-but-removable hooks you can find in the Reject Shop/Overflow etc. to keep them from overtaking the laundry.

The other week I had time to have a go at it, & yep, it worked. It was a bit fiddly to begin, but worked a treat. Once I got into a rhythm, all was well. I found it was useful when adding more core material, to have the thin strands (may 10/12) ready to go clamped by (yep you guessed it) a peg, so I didn’t have to: stop, get the bunch, separate a dozen strands, pick up my work & insert them. So I ended up
preparing a half-a-dozen pegs at a time, so I wasn’t getting up & down constantly.

The first one I tried, I used one of the contrast colours as the weaver, & then a few rows out, changed it to another one of the colours in the bunch, & so on.
I also wanted a stronger colour on the top rows, so I stripped out a stronger contrast colour from a new raffia strand, & added that to the core. It was interesting to see how changing the weaver colour worked with the all the colours in the core material. It created a lot of ‘movement’ in the piece.

It worked really well, but I was so involved in all the adding in & colours, I wasn’t paying attenion to the basket shape, so the sides are a tad pancakey, but I can cut the top couple of rows back & stack it up properly when I have time.

I’m using Ruth’s technique with the trusty needle, but can’t see why the crochet style wouldn’t work with fine strands. I want to try the crochet look, but haven’t had time yet.

All power to Cass’s fine little company, & happy weaving – or whatever you do – in the coming New Year.
Cheers, Jasse.

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