Plaiting Tradition Lives On In Long Island
In the Bahamas, a popular saying speaks to the naturally occurring richness of the land and sea, which has provided for generations of Bahamians: “Money on the ground.”
In Long Island, the Silver Top palm tree is money on the ground. It grows in abundance within the coppice forest, reaching past 10 meters in height and 15 cm in diameter. The leaves spiral at the top of the trunk. The bark is smooth. Its common name comes from the silvery hairs on the underside of the durable leaf.
Alberta Knowles, a 79 year old resident of Simms, Long Island, knows the wealth contained within its nature. Her life has revolved around the plant, intersecting at important times with master seamstress Ivy Simms.
From the age of 13, Ms Alberta has been plaiting silver top into mats and hats and bags. During her formative teenage years, she worked with Ms Ivy, a master seamstress and manufacturer of bags.
Ms Ivy established a straw factory in Long Island, where she taught many women the craft of designing and stitching bags from the native straw and the business side of the trade. She was a “perfectionist”, remembered Ms Alberta. The factory is no longer operational, but the building still stands as the Simms Burial Society Hall.
“Miss Ivy had five girls working with her and five machines. I’d go there in the evenings; I’d stop and learn the lattice work, a style of plaiting. After she saw me improving, she showed me how to put zippers in the pockets of the bags and she showed me everything because I was the one willing to learn. I was the closest one to her. If she was going away she’d leave the place in my hands. She found me very honest,” said Ms Alberta.
“She ordered her thread from Bedford, England, the real tan one just like the colour of the sand. She wanted everything to match,” she said. Ms Ivy had no children, so the women of Long Island received the wealth of her knowledge.
On one of her visits to the Bahamas, Queen Elizabeth II received a set of Ms Ivy’s straw bags, hand crated by Long Islanders.
“I made one and Lula Pratt made one also. I don’t know if the queen uses them but we felt good about giving them to her. Ms Pratt had the opportunity to go down and sew for her so she could see how a straw bag was made,” said Ms Alberta.
“The Silver Top is taken from the tree and put out in the sun for four or five days before it is ready to be plaited. Leaves that are not open can be put over the fire; they will turn brown in three weeks’ time, “said Ms Alberta. “This is the brown straw that you see running through the plaits on the straw bags that everyone makes.”
The work of Ivy Simms and those who came after is still evident in Long Island today.
“You can see Ms Ivy in all our work. It has been passed on. She taught many girls how to plait; some have already passed on and died. Only me, Lula Pratt, Sarah Adderley and Isadora Hepburn are the set that are living now. I am doing the same thing too: Passing on the knowledge that is.”
Alberta Knowles demonstrates the plaiting techniques she learned on Long Island. (Photos: Derek Smith/BIS)