I learned to plait from Main’s Swiss Straw Work (2003) in 2006. Three years later the NAWW kindly donated a copy of their Plait Directory (1998) to me, containing a series of plaiting techniques used in the US. These books have been invaluable in helping me to understand how certain effects are created. However, the knowledge of how to create many of the historical plaits has been lost.
My first experiments began by trying out Swiss strawcraft techniques, starting with the ‘God’s eye’ motif. I have since seen this technique used by several very different cultures, for example American Indian, Mayan and Ugandan. I have concluded that, to some extent, there are certain techniques and motifs that are a natural or easily discovered way of working with strands of matter and that this is one of them. In dyed, split palm leaves, individual motifs were made, by wrapping splints of palm leaves around small crosses of wire, then attached to a blocked base of sparterie. This was a very time-consuming process that would probably not be commercially viable.
Through sampling and experimentation, trying to recreate various patterns, I found many to be very complex and time-consuming to produce. Some were difficult to achieve in palm leaves as opposed to wheat straw (which comes from the stalk of the wheat), as they require a fibre of greater body. Multiple layers of palm leaves, worked together to give a firmer fibre, were tricky to control when forming intricate loops or other raised, textural effects. Two to three layers of split palm leaf were normally the maximum number that I used at any point in plaiting.
My plaits needed to be relatively narrow in order to be supple enough to curve into different forms. They needed to be thick enough not to be weak, but also able to be shaped with steam if need be. The characteristic structure of millinery plaits was used for all the textural plaits that I developed: with a head, body and foot.
The ‘cordonet’ technique was used to create decorative, concertina-like cords that were integrated in some 19thcentury millinery plaits.
I developed a two-stranded version that grew out plaits and was worked for various lengths before re-integrating them into the main plait.
The longer lengths of cordonet, if re-integrated after only a few turns of the edge, would curl and form a scrolling effect. Shorter lengths would give little punctuations of texture along the plait’s edge. I felt the last sample, with the alternating cordonets and floaters (above: bottom right), was the most successful and could easily envision its use as a decorative accessory plait. However in palm, which is more fragile than wheat straw, the fine strips of leaf can easily tear when folding over one another to form the cordonet, so I decided not to pursue this.
Later, after several field trips to Uganda, I became increasingly influenced by indigenous Ugandan patterned plaits and developed samples of some narrower versions that would work for western accessories.
I started sampling for these plaits by trying to replicate a few basic patterns I found instructions for in Warner Dendel’s African Fabric Crafts (1974) and Trowell’s African Arts and Crafts, Their Development in the School (1937). However, as Ugandan plaits are usually much broader and thicker than is desirable for accessories, I tried to reduce the number of strands used while still creating patterns.
After spending time with mat-makers in Uganda I began to understand the different formulae for the plaits: how to organize contrasting colours to create different patterns. These samples have been realized through trial and error, by trying out different combinations and organisations of contrasting strands. Their individual recipes have been recorded in my sample books. They vary in width between 1.8 and 3.2 centimeters, as I believe plaits of more than 2.5 centimeters width and may work well for some bags.
Plait with strips of discarded palm woven through, with their ends allowed to merge and splay out at regular intervals, 2009
The patterns that can be created in narrower plaits are more limited than those for mekeka, which are produced by using many more strands of palm, and thus give a greater range of options.
Some interesting patterns can be formed when combined with the textural elements from earlier experiments some highly original braids were created. The hybrid approach, combining techniques from European straw plaiting with those of Ugandan mekeka plaiting offers a new, pidgin visual language in braid.