The tradition of plaiting and sewing thatch baskets sustained Caymanian families in times past.
"When I was fifteen years of age I started plaiting. I am happy to say that my first pair of shoes I wore in life, I bought them off of making baskets." Marlena Anglin.
The tradition of plaiting and sewing thatch baskets sustained Caymanian families in times past. Today, few Caymanians could depend upon their knowledge of plaiting, as modern lifestyles and development of the Islands have nearly erased the tradition. Lack of interest in learning the craft, and a large generation gap, are often quoted as reasons for this change. Traditional artist, Nell Smith, of North Side recounts her memories of "backing" (gathering or carrying) "tops", the raw material from which rope and baskets were made.
"Sometimes, quite a few of us would go in the land and cut tops, we would walk it and carry them things ("tops") on your back long with it." It was just part of the hard life endured by many Caymanian women.
Before the 1960s, Caymanian baskets made from the Silver Thatch Palm, Cocothrinax proctorii were treasured for their strength, durability and usefulness. They were the best means of transporting tops for the rope-making industry, and the crops farmers harvested from their provision grounds. Today, traditional baskets increasingly are valued for the beauty and ingenuity revealed in the variety of plaiting styles.
Most plaiting styles utilize 4, 7, 9, 11 or 15 "strings". Strings blades of the Silver Thatch Palm "tops" cut into rectangular pieces. The width of a "string" depends upon the type of basket being made. Many patterns are fashioned from these basic strings. The most common plaiting found in traditional basketry is the "eleven string" because of the width of the "round," and the width of the string used in plaiting it. A "round" or "bout" is the number of circular bands of plaiting that makes up a basket.
ELEVEN STRING a tightly woven brickwork pattern often plain but sometimes displays a diamond pattern of white and dark
NOTCH PLAITING an angular lace-like form of either four or six strings. It is used as a decorative piece to finish a basket.
OPENWORK an intricate pattern of two primary parallel strings and two overlapping strings. It is favoured as another decorative style.
HEDGEHOG a masterful and intricate example of the skilled craft. It consists of both scalloped and notched edges.
SNAKEBELLY a similar formation to openwork, the strings are tightly bound.
Traditionally, baskets were utilitarian objects, so little time was spent decorating them. However, natural dyes such as fustic and red mangrove, were occasionally used to add a hint of colour to the strings of a special basket.
Today, although there is a wide variety of Caymanian baskets being marketed to a new audience. There is only a handful of basket-makers continuing to produce them.
If the tradition of plaiting thatch baskets is to continue, the raw materials must be saved from destruction, and the techniques and skills must be transmitted to new generations.