Material: Elephant Grass
In Ghana the main weaving material is elephant grass. The grass derives its name from being a favorite food of 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: The dyes our Ghanaian artisans use are 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 best and generally never follow the same formula twice. All of the dyes used are safe for humans. In fact the artisans sometimes even boil their peanuts as they boil their dyes then eat the brightly colored peanuts! Often times the artisans dye their weaving straw in the same pots they use to cook their food.
We have just completed building a dyeing kitchen in cooperation with Whole Foods Market.
Material Preparation: Weaving begins with a 2.5' piece of the grass, also known as straw.
Using their teeth, the artisan splits the straw down the middle creating two thin pieces. The artisan then repeatedly rolls the two pieces together, known as twisting--this process requires a smooth flat surface to achieve just the right kind of twist for weaving. The best surface to twist the straw is generally on their bare thigh or on a sandal turned upside down and strapped to their thigh. Once the straw is twisted, it is put into a pot of boiling dye. Depending on the color and amount of straw being dyed, it takes about 20 minutes for the straw to achieve the full color of the dye. The straw is laid in the sun to dry. Only after the straw is dried does the weaving process finally begin.
Weaving Technique: In Ghana the process is an "over/under" technique of weaving which enables the artisan to create beautiful patterns and shapes.
Handles: The handles of Ghana baskets are made of straw that is wrapped with goat leather.
Time Frame: It takes the average Ghanaian artisan two and a half 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 which 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 go and 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 which is produced 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: The dyes used in Uganda start in powdered form.
They are primarily imported from Kenya and are purchased by the gram in the local market place. No further information about the dyes is available at this writing.
Material Preparation: Harvesting the raffia palm takes skill.
First you have to climb the palm which is difficult since there are no branches--but climbing is the only way to reach the tender leaves. The new leaf growth is harvested by cutting. The leaf is then split in half. The halves are dried and split again several more times forming many independent fibers. Those fibers are then bundled together and wrapped with the raffia to create all of our Ugandan baskets.
The raffia is actually 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. (See the picture to the left). 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 a cream color. It is then put into boiling dye to be colored then dried again using the same wrapping process. (See the picture to the right).
Weaving Technique: In Uganda our artisans use what is considered a "coil" technique.
The banana stalk is bundled about 6-7 pieces per row, and the raffia palm wrapped around them creating 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 using the palm "sew" a stitch every few inches to hold the basket layers together. These stitches must be carefully considered as often times they are visible in the overall pattern of the basket.
Time Frame: It takes the average Ugandan artisan two 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.
Material Preparation: In order to prepare the sedge for weaving, it 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: The artisans of Madagascar use an "over/under" traditional weaving style.
Handles: We offer Madagascar Blessing Baskets with two types of handles. The leather handles are made of goat leather filled with straw. The natural handles are woven and made from grass.
Time Frame: It takes the average Malagasy artisan three days to weave a basket.
Material: Sea grass and date palm
Dye: Imported and no further information is available at this writing.
Material Preparation: The sea grass is grown in the Bay of Bengal hundreds of miles from our artisans and must be transported by truck.
The sea grass is wrapped with date palm leaves which grow very abundantly throughout the country. 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: The artisans in Bangladesh weave using the "coil" style of weaving.
They 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 one and a half days to weave a basket.
Country: Papua New Guinea
Material: A vine from the fern family known as Gleichenia
The stalk of the Gleichnia 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 fully 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.
Dye: The baskets from Papua New Guinea use no dye.
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: 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: 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 five days to weave a basket.
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.
Weaving Technique: The weaving technique of our Indonesia Blessing Baskets was created by our head artisan Pac Udin. After importing his baskets to the United States via The Blessing Basket Project, 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 Pak 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 one and a half days to weave a basket.