There is one thing that every Bahamian, no matter who they are, or which island they’re on, has in their home- something made out of “straw”. Whether it’s a straw hat, basket, bag, a set of place mats, a bowl, or even something not mentioned here, there’s some straw. If we can’t do it ourselves, we know someone who has done it for many many years. This is an old craft, likely done out of necessity by the original Arawak Indians, later Africans, and even Seminole Indians.
Originally, straw weaving was for baskets, clothes and head covers for women and men that lived and worked throughout the islands. Straw hats were an economical way to ward off the hot sun, easily made from a variety of palms found throughout the islands. This craft became popular and a Bahamian tourist collectible in the 1920s and 1930s when local women would come together in Rawson Square, in downtown Nassau, to sell their hats and baskets, along with local fruits and vegetables.
The plaiting production line would start in the out islands where islanders would collect palm leaves from coconut palms, palmettos and the silver palm-trees. They would then dry and cure the leaves before cutting and peeling into strips to plait. Plaiting consists of making long ribbons of straw, usually about 10 feet, which can take up to 8 hours, depending on the complexity of the weave. There are dozens and dozens of plait designs, all with their own names, and many hands are useful for the job, as well as making the time pass pleasantly. If not made into bags, baskets or hats on the island, plait rolls would then be shipped to Nassau to be made into different items, readily for sale at the straw market.
Plaiting and straw work has helped to not only create revenue, but it’s the most popular souvenir. Though there are controversial conversations about the Nassau Straw Market and the amount of imported goods, a true Bahamian eye can spot real plaited straw. Most of the products are made with the out island plait, and are decorated with colourful raffia figures depicting everything from Bahamian policemen to cartoon characters.
Plait designs are still being added today and if you’re lucky, you might find a one of a kind item that a true straw artist created. Because of the popularity of straw goods with the tourists that visit the market, there’s no end to the rows and rows of straw work you can meander through. Here’s a tip that might score you something special though- look up. Some of the older designs are hung high, as straw workers deem them less popular than the colourful cartoon character enhanced bags requested by tourists.
Through the history of the art, as well as the ongoing handicraft of Bahamians from our 700 islands, straw is this holiday seasons Mailboat Must-HaveThe Nassau Straw Market
Photos by Emily Morley