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Materiality | Spotlight on: Raffia

Conscious Creation started as a project during lockdown, when the combination of a sudden load of spare time and a lack of open charity shops had me looking into making anything I needed for myself! I’ve always had a fascination for how things work and are constructed, the people and processes involved, so I've loved this opportunity to learn through making, research via design and create some bespoke items that fit more of my ever growing criteria!

During a lockdown that began during a very hot and sunny spring, one of the first things I needed was a sun hat. Mum has always had a skill for very tasteful present wrapping, so I remember unwrapping gifts tied with raffia from way back! I love its neutrality, its simplicity and its environmental credentials so it was one of the first options that came to mind to experiment with for hat making.


One of my key aims with conscious creation was to use it as an opportunity to learn much more about what is involved behind the scenes in production and any issues surrounding this – the aspects that usually go unnoticed and get taken for granted. As soon as I started looking for a supplier of raffia to use however, I quickly realised that I was a prime target for its marketing niche! It turns out there are a number of versions of raffia, all using selling themselves via the qualities of being ‘natural’ and ‘sustainable', which obviously quickly drew me into wider thoughts and indecisions about what is the best version to be using...


Raffia Palm, Raffia Yarn, Paper Raffia


There seem to be three forms of raffia that are readily available for crafting, all sold quite confusingly and marketed for slightly different purposes.

Raffia Palm -

is the traditional form of raffia and is created simply by sun-drying the fronds of palm leaves themselves. They are harvested from the Palmyra tree which grows in tropical regions of Africa, most commonly in Madagascar, and is known for its incredibly long leaves that reach lengths of up to 25m! The leaves are collected locally by hand and cut vertically to retain their strength, before being hung to dry in the sun, fading to a pale beige over time. It is often sold in its original colour, but is also readily available dyed in a range of natural or fantastic bright colours. It is used locally for ropes, supporting beams and roof coverings, but is also imported to Europe for many craft uses, particularly floristry, gardening and gift wrapping.

Raffia Yarn –

is a form of rayon produced by dissolving plant cellulose, often wood fibres, using chemical solvents. This solution is then converted back into a fibrous material which mimics the texture of raffia, but allows the production of continuous strings of uniform fibre. In comparison to many man-made fibres the manufacture of cellulose rayon is relatively low-impact, but it does still require a number of processing steps to dry, depolymerise, regenerate and refine filaments, especially in comparison to the direct use of raffia palm. Despite producing a final product that is fully biodegradable, using mostly ‘natural’, plant-based materials, the process also requires the use of carbon disulphide, a highly toxic chemical that is associated with dangerous working conditions for manufacturers.


Paper Raffia –

is more likely to be used in papercrafts as a decorative ribbon and is made from wood fibre in a similar way to other papers, formed so as to mimic the textures of the dried raffia palm leaf. Paper raffia is therefore also ‘natural’ and biodegradable, but subject to the same issues as regular paper in terms of sustainable forest management for wood sourcing, energy and waste associated with processing and questionable efficiency of post-consumption recycling.



Although with raffia all forms are relatively low impact, plant-based production processes; with many materials the social and environmental costs of production vary widely between differing options. Minimising these impacts and ultimately working towards a production that is regenerative to its social and environmental context is super important to me and key among the factors that account for my choice of materials. Of course discovering these impacts is always far easier said than done and it can feel pretty impossible to discover much at all about the full manufacturing process, let alone to compare and prioritise each aspect of it. Is it better to buy raffia palm from abroad, processed minimally and manually and regenerative to its environment? Or does that rely upon tough, poorly paid work from local communities?

In this case and most cases nowadays, given that both raffia yarn and palm leaf raffia are produced abroad relying on externalised labour, and that raffia yarn can be associated with dangerous and toxic working conditions, I was keen to try out palm leaf raffia – the most natural form – and see how far I got!


On Co-Creation | process not object

My main worry about working with raffia palm was its inherently piecemeal nature, varying in length, width, colour and texture. As I worked with it, it quickly became clear that crocheting one strand at a time would be a nightmare to join, so it works much better by constantly overlapping and feeding in new strands. This also has the benefits of working well with the wispy strands left at the end, which can be bundled together to get up to thickness. Using this method makes a beautifully textured material full of natural variation. It is supple and flexible but also holds its form, meaning it can be shaped as you go to suit different bodies!

It clearly excited me as a material, since my next project jumped straight from the raffia sun hat to a fully wearable pair of sandals! This was a much longer but more rewarding design process as I moved from following the pattern that had inspired me, working into old flip flops as a sole, and found more and more materials to explore. I love the collaborative side of design as housemates' feedback and reactions, suggestions for new materials and methods, visions of cork placemats as potential shoe soles or even orders for a hat for themselves helped me along!

From the initial need for a new pair of sandals, a pattern for flip flop soles and a bag of raffia palm; I ended up making ties from a discarded top I found, soles from cork bath mats (another fantastic material environmentally) and bases from punctured bike inner tubes. It was a long process, and to be honest it still needs some refining to try another (hopefully stronger!) option, but it has all left me pretty excited and sparked plenty more thoughts for future options.


It can be easy to feel like the discourse around sustainability is only ever negative. Particularly the ideas of using less, using more natural products and crafting by hand are often seen as a restriction, ‘going back to the stone age’ and rejecting technological progress. However, I find design to be the complete opposite. Understanding how things are made and who contributes to their creation is a highly complex part of globalised, modern life and the strife towards a socially and environmentally regenerative design feels like a crucial, exciting design challenge. I love engaging with creation as part of a multi-layered, co-creation process; thinking beyond the last steps of design to consider how this last step was enabled.

For me at the moment, my creative exploration is very much through a trial and error, hand-crafted exploration, which is pretty laborious! In some ways it can feel like an old-fashioned form of creation, making bespoke items without a production line or mechanisation for the final product. However, this is not due to a belief that there is no place for mechanisation or technology within design, but more due to the need to pause and question their assumed use, the implications of their use and the scale of production they encourage. Crafting for me is just as much about the process, about learning, questioning and discovering as it is about the end product. Crafting in this way slows me down and lets me explore creation at a deeper level. I would love to continue to learn more and to think about how my thoughts scale up and potentially combine with modern manufacture to best use our resources – both our material resources and our time and energy.




Conclusions | next steps

Despite my hopes to use conscious creation as a way to explore and value the full process of co-creation, to achieve greater supply chain transparency, I am still finding the wider supply chain frustratingly opaque and impossible to navigate. So far I have sourced my raffia from a company called Nutscene via Etsy, who buy from renewable sources in Madagascar. Harvest is strictly controlled by policy and law in Madagascar to just the months of June-October which allows the palms and habitat to regenerate. They grow at an extensive rate, making it a fantastic renewable, biodegradable and carbon sequestering product, as well as a large part of the Madagascan economy.

What I am unable to find confirmed certification of so far is the impacts of this time consuming and laborious work upon those who harvest and prepare it. Although there are lots of narratives about how positive it is to support the local economy, these stories are often told either as part of the sales pitch of a company (which makes me immediately suspicious) or through a European lens that feels very vulnerable to White saviourism. I feel uncomfortable that I am still unaware of how fair the price and working conditions are and don't feel convinced by narratives that sound incredibly proud of themselves for simply 'providing work for women' or 'teaching locals how to work with the environment'.

In the meantime, I remain excited about raffia as an environmentally regenerative material, full of natural variation and fully biodegradable. Within a very imperfect system, supporting those producing raffia palm as opposed to cellulose rayon or many other, more damaging, plant and animal based materials feels a great step to take. However, I will continue to ask questions and search for suppliers who can provide this information to ensure the issue is raised, considered and addressed.

As I explore the use of raffia for my own creations, I am aware of its cultural origins within the crafts and constructions of tropical regions, particularly tropical areas of Africa and Asia. Baskets, hats, mats and many other products made by local artisans are also exported to sell within Europe and often also carry fairtrade certification. They are often so beautiful in colour and texture and are definitely a huge precedent and part of the co-design process I have been taking this lockdown. Some links I am aware of to buy from local artisans are shared below.


Through my own explorations into handmade hats, shoes (and ideas to try bags, baskets and more!) I have been stimulated to learn so much more about the wider web of design and creation. I see these processes of iterative design and critical political thought as interwoven and a massive part of what draws me to craft, architecture and socio-spatial placemaking. More to come!

image from raffiaonline.com

For more information:


https://www.raffiaonline.com/about_raffia.html - background introduction on raffia production

https://nutscene.com/blogs/news/raffia-from-madagascar-to-scotland?_pos=1&_sid=31bd05ebd&_ss=r - for more information on raffia from the supplier I have used so far

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rayon - on cellulose rayon


Places I have come across to support local artisans:

https://phemke.com/blogs/news/madagascar-adding-value-for-the-people-and-the-planet

http://www.new-ag.info/en/focus/focusItem.php?a=234

https://www.sharedearth.co.uk/eco-friendly-raffia-baskets-mats-c102x3585614

https://www.thebasketroom.com/


To see what I have been making, or commission one for yourself then take a look here!

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