Growing up in an agricultural-based society, such as that of Uganda, gives one a deeper understanding of the cycle of growth, decay and rebirth that defines many aspects of life. The rural east African lifestyle is often by nature eco-friendly, since the community’s survival depends upon sustaining critical natural resources.
As a New Yorker who will always have allegiance to Uganda, designing and selecting Harkiss products with sustainable, traditional east African fibers reflects my respect for the natural beauty of my native land.
One such sustainable fiber that I love to feature in the Harkiss Designs catalog is palm leaf. Versatile, durable and beautiful, palm leaf is one of the signature materials of traditional east African crafts.
Different kinds of palm native to the east African region include Raffia palm and Palmyra palm. Artisans typically weave with the type of palm leaves most readily available near their communities.
Raffia palms have the longest pinnate leaves in the plant kingdom, growing up to 25 meters in length. Twenty species grow naturally in the tropical regions of Africa. Palmyra palms, also indigenous to tropical Africa, have fan-like leaves that grow up to 3 meters long.
To harvest the leaves, people must climb the tall, leafless trunk to reach the new, tender shoots at the center of the palm crowns. The harvesters cut these leaves with knives, a process that actually spurs new growth, completing a sustainable growth cycle that does no harm to the tree.
Artisans remove the palm fiber from the leaves, pulling strips carefully so that each comes off in one length. After wrapping the fiber and drying it in the sun, artisans can dye the natural-hued palm leaf fibers and then dry them in the same way to prepare them for weaving.
In various parts of eastern Africa, artisans weave palm fibers using the patterns and designs passed through generations. Traditionally, east Africans have used plaited palm leaf mats as floor coverings, wall screens in their huts, mats for sitting upon and wrapping material. More recently, east African artisans have begun to produce marketable items such as the bags, fashion purses and coin purses featured in Harkiss Design’s catalog. These attractive, tradition-rich palm leaf accessories are rapidly gaining a market share in the international marketplace.