Raffia for Basket Making & the Sustainability of crafting with ‘String Harvest’

An important part of my crafting life is to focus on the sustainability and ethics of where my supplies come from, and where they go after. I use only natural fibres, and aim as best as possible, to support smaller businesses whose ethos matches mine. I’ll be honest and say sometimes this is harder in this industry of new fabrics, mass produced materials and cheap labour. But taking a thoughtful approach to our materials is an honest way to reconcile the overflowing craft cupboard. Often finding a business who goes out of their way to stock, promote and sell only ethical, sustainable, and environmentally thoughtful craft supplies can be hard; so when I do I’m keen to support them in any way possible to make sure this type of business keeps on becoming more of the norm.

Which is why I was exceedingly excited when I first heard about String Harvest a few years ago, and I’ve been so pleased to watch grow and continue staying true to the original ethos (something that is not easy at all in the reality of business). String Harvest is owned, run and managed solely by Cass from her home studio in South East Queensland. In Cass’ own words, String Harvest is:

“…..an online store, owned by me (Cass) that I now realise reflects my personal style and taste – a combination of staple, classic craft supplies and quirky, interesting vintage yarns. You can find all manner of natural and ethically sourced fibres alongside yarns and materials not easily found anywhere else. I love weird vintage and hard to find! I believe that our craft habits should be done with the conscious effort to reduce our environmental impact, and as ethically as possible. So that’s why I encourage creativity and crafting with the use of low impact and fairly traded fibres – hemp, raffia, linen, jute, paper and so on – they’ll eventually biodegrade and that’s very important. The yarns I supply are both vintage in the sense that they are from estates, retired fashion and textile designers, and other surplus yarns from the fashion industry that make their way into wholesale markets. They are post ‘mass production’ in that sense, so you will not find them in 500 other stores. There are plenty of brands already driving ‘new’ and seasonal production in the global economy and I’m not interested in feeding that demand – I am way more interested in re-discovering and sharing the delights of textiles that already exist”. 

While Cass sells many beautiful rare and vintage fibres, she also sells new strings, yarns and threads all with a sustainable and ethical underpinning. One such product that I use a lot, and many of you have been asking me more about, is raffia. Basket weaving is a beautiful craft that I’m a little bit addicted with at the moment, and based on my current Instagram feed I think I’m not the only one! I’ve had lots of people asking how I store and wrangle my raffia so I thought I’d share some tips and while I was at it, I thought you might be curious about what raffia actually is and what to look out for when you’re buying it. So – who better to ask than Cass. Hence this blog post that is a mini-semi-interview with my favourite yarn/thread/string supplier, who also happens to be a friend in real life as well as online, and a mini how-to for storing your craft supplies.

I love to know the background on my craft supplies, rather than just randomly pulling things off the shelves of shops, and raffia is one of those “what is that” things.

{Ellie} Cass, can you tell us what raffia actually is & where it comes from? 
{Cass} Raffia for craft is made from the mature leaves of the Palmyra palm, Raphia farinifera which is native to Madagascar. Like all palms, the new leaves grow up on the inside and make their way to the outside – they eventually drop off, or can be harvested by climbing the tree and trimming – you would not want theses leaves to accidentally fall on you! As far as fibre crops go, raffia harvesting is quite sustainable because no trees are cut down and it’s a very resourceful use of leaf. (Imagine if we used a fraction of the palm leaf waste from urban environments in this way!) Unlike most crops, it requires no chemical or extra water in processing and you don’t need to water palm trees. (I’m talking here about the natural, undyed stuff only). One of my suppliers sends me photos of the ‘factory’ sheds where they bring in harvested raffia for drying sorting and packaging/binding and I really love that level of transparency. 

It’s not a huge stretch to see what you get, from where it comes from. It’s a giant bushy palm tree – I don’t think we have any species like it here in Australia. The leaves are quite long, up to 10m and over 2m wide! Raffia we use is simply these leaves, dried and shredded. The raffia I currently stock only comes from Madagascar because when we talk about natural raffia I think we should be talking about it coming from this particular palmyra palm. There are other palm species grown in Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Indonesia which are sold as raffia but they have quite different qualities and we shouldn’t conflate them. 

{Ellie} Are there different sorts or qualities of raffia – and what do we have to look out for when buying it?
{Cass} Yes absolutely! So aside from different species of palm tree giving different kinds of raffia – there are also many grades of Madagascan raffia. Here in Australia our market is relatively isolated so we don’t have the luxury of choice when it comes to grades, although I am always looking for premium quality (even though this also varies from year to year). However, I’m working on something secret to do with that… you’ll have to wait a few months to hear more about it!
You will find different sources for raffia, ranging from floristry supplies, to $2 shops and the mainstream craft supply supermarkets. You get what you pay for, and supply chain transparency varies accordingly. I like raffia that has good structure – where you can see the strong hardened end close to the spine of the palm, not too yellow, good length (at least 1.2m), and reasonable width. The less stringy and stray bits, the better.
{Ellie} What’s your best storage tip? Care to share photos? 
{Cass} My best storage tip is to give your raffia a little space… something it likes to do whether you have the space or not! I have zero advice on how to keep it out of your pets legs… or fellow family members lives. Raffia usually comes bundled at one end, and I try to keep it held together at that end for as long as possible. Rubber bands are also good for this. I also let it sit in a big tub. When you’re using raffia for weaving, it’s best to let it relax a bit so it’s not coming straight out of a compressed and folded up state, the fibres straighten out and it tangles less on itself. The drier, less humid the storage space, the less I find it tangles. 

{Ellie} What do you love using it for? What’s your best project you’ve ever made?
{Cass} I love using it for coiled baskets. I love it as a core because you can shape it nicely and it contrasts beautifully with other fibres. I miss experimenting! The best project I made has a raffia core and I coiled around this with a very fine silk wrapped linen paper. 

And because I’m pretty sure all our families are a little bit over having raffia everywhere they walk (or in bed, or stuck on the couch or the toy box), I’ve written a little how to wrangle raffia’ especially for you. It’s a simple technique that might just change your relationship to this wonderful, but messy, material. This post got pretty long, so you can read the mini tutorial here, including a simple how to naturally dye your raffia using kitchen scraps & pantry supplies.
If you’d love to know more about raffia and basket weaving (like how to make beautiful vessels like these ones that Cass made), make sure you check out my online Basket Weaving Course where I show a different techniques to create a beautiful hand woven piece – all my students are addicted to it!
Make sure you visit String Harvest to check out ALL the delicious fibres & threads she, which include vintage, rare & sustainable. Website Here || Instagram Here.
*all images by Cass from String Harvest.

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