Grasping at Straws: Plaiting a Path Out of Poverty

Rose

Straw worker, Rose McKenzie, weaves dried strips of palm fronds into plait

Of all the Bahamian artisans I met at this year’s Island Roots festival, one of my favourites was Rose McKenzie.

Rose told me that, as young girls in Exuma, she and her sister, Neuiza Rolle, learned traditional straw work from their mother. The hats and baskets they produced provided vital funds for their family during difficult economic times.

My grandmother, Lurey Curry Albury, told a similar tale.

Early in the 20th century, Green Turtle Cay’s economy suffered several devastating blows. Its lucrative pineapple industry dried up when Cuba began exporting the fruit, and the U.S. annexed Hawaii, creating its own domestic supply. A burgeoning sponge industry was wiped out when disease killed off the local sponge beds. And in 1932, much of the settlement of New Plymouth was destroyed by a category 5 hurricane.

Devastated and deep in poverty, the residents of Green Turtle Cay cobbled together livings as best they could. For my great-grandfather, Pa Herman, this meant fishing and small-scale farming. My great-grandmother, Ma May, sewed straw hats.

Bahamas, straw hat, Abaco

A straw hat, similar to those sewn by Ma May, and a roll of plait on display at the Albert Lowe Museum, Green Turtle Cay, Abaco

Below, my grandmother describes how she harvested palm fronds and processed them to make plait – rolls of woven or braided straw from which hats and other handicrafts are created.

Mama would sew the straw hats, but I would make the plait. I used to go down to the Long Beach. There used to be coconut trees there. And there were plenty of thatch-top trees over at Black Sound.

Hats on Chair

Antique straw hats on display at the Wyannie Malone Museum, Hope Town, Abaco

We used to get the young palm tops – cut them out of the head of the tree. We would cut those tops open and put them in the rock oven, let them get kind of crisp. If we didn’t have rain, we’d put them in the sea to bleach. Then, we would strip the palm tops with a needle or pin to make the strands to plait.

Sometimes I’d mix white-top palm and coconut leaves together. Other times, I’d plait all coconut leaves, or make lace plait. Uncle Ludd would take the plait that I made and sell it up around the islands. He would bring me the money. 

We used to send bundles of palm tops to a lady on Guana Cay, and she would send some to another lady on Man-O-War. They would make plait, keep a little for themselves and send the rest back to us.

Miss Leela, a Man-O-War woman, had a store down on Market Street in Nassau, where she sold dress material and different things. She used to sell the hats Mama made, but she didn’t send the money. She would send us material and other things we needed from the shop. 

When the mailboat would come, people were always sending plait to Mama, asking, ‘Miss May, can you sew this hat for me?’

I remember when Sister Hughes and her husband came to Green Turtle Cay. Mama sewed Mrs. Hughes a hat. The plait was open and lacy, and I made roses out of crepe paper and put around the edge. Sister Hughes used to go to go to church in it.

I had one, too. I made the edging plait out of navy blue crepe paper and Mama sewed the hat. I made white paper roses, and put them right around the front. Mama put wire under the brim. You wouldn’t know that hat wasn’t bought in a shop!

For many visitors to the Bahamas, straw bags and hats are little more than cheerful souvenirs. But for Rose, my grandmother and other Bahamians, this traditional handicraft generated much-needed income for their households during times of desperation and want.

Plait Samples 2

Rolls of plait for sewing hats and bags

 

  9 comments for “Grasping at Straws: Plaiting a Path Out of Poverty

  1. Joy Lowe Jossi
    May 14, 2014 at 9:01 pm

    Amanda, I hang on to each word. Love the history told. About “Miss Leela, a Man-O-War woman,” I have a strong hunch that this was Lela Bowles who married Winer Jesop Albury from Man-o’-War Cay, and they moved to live in Nassau. Miss Lela lived on Montrose Avenue hill and she had a shop downtown Nassau. Industrious women and men.

    • May 24, 2014 at 12:24 pm

      Thanks, Joy, and thank you for the information about Lela Bowles. I’m sure this is the same woman my grandmother was talking about. Glad to know a little more about her. 🙂

  2. May 14, 2014 at 10:18 pm

    Amanda –

    The history and legacy of being a resourceful, creative, “survivors regardless of the odds” group of people, both black and white, in the Abacos never ceases to amaze me. The living legacy of the reality that people can find a way to live off the land and sea and have a good life, rich in love for God, family, community and their world, if not material goods, most especially when they pull together as a community for the good of all, still resounds in the Cays today. It is, most definitely, one of the reasons I enjoy spending time on GTC and in Abaco in general. Visits tend to remind and reconnect me with those realities and values and I cherish that about GTC/Abaco.

    I especially treasure the connections and friendships I have been able to “grow” over my visits with local folks on the Cays, as well as established, frequent visitors. Thanks to people I have met during my travels who have some personal history and connection and/or long term personal experience of their own on the Cays like you, Linda, Irene and more, I have had the true delight and pleasure of meeting and spending time with true multi-generational members of the local community and value those times and associations. I’m still a “newbie”. Only 8 visits over 13 years. Our very first visit to Abaco was on Elbow Cay in February of 2001, when evidence of hurricane Floyd and serious rebuilding efforts were still around. We are approaching being overdue for another visit! Hopefully, next year.

    Thanks for your ongoing efforts to research, resurrect, preserve, share and, through that sharing, educate others of us about the amazing history and legacy of Green Turtle Cay and Abaco!

    -Gayle

    • May 24, 2014 at 12:23 pm

      Gayle, a very belated thank you for your note! I, too, have been touched by the resilience of the Abaco people, and am proud to call these folks my ancestors. Tom and I were so happy to have a chance to meet you in person, and we hope to see you on the cay again soon! Drinks on our new porch…?

  3. thomas roberts
    May 15, 2014 at 6:41 am

    LEELA  (LEILA ALBURY) LEILA AND HER HUSBAND THAT HAD THE STORE IN MARKET STREET HAD ONE SON GEORGE THAT HAD THE SHELL STATION IN CENTREVILLE.. I THINK THAT THEY EVENTUALLY SOLD THE STORE TO A MRS. McDONALD FROM CHEROKEE SOUND ABACO. MRS. McDONALD ALSO SOLD THE FAMOUS “ROYAL READERS” TOMMY

    ________________________________

    • May 24, 2014 at 12:20 pm

      Hi, Thomas. Thank you for this information! Glad to be able to learn a bit more about Miss Leela/Leila! 🙂

  4. May 31, 2014 at 3:12 pm

    Loved your article about Grasping at Straws!

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