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A Touch of the Tropics

Source: Martha Stewart Living, June 2008


Raffia is actually the leaf of Raphia, a genus of more than 20 palm trees that includes some of the largest specimens in existence. Native primarily to Africa, the palms -- along with knowledge of how to dry and cut the leaves into narrow strips -- followed the winds of trade to the South Pacific. Some hula skirts are still made from raffia.

Despite its travels, the frond's roots remained strong in Africa, where some of the most sublime raffia work was created -- woven designs that would ultimately inspire Picasso and his fellow Modernists. In New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, visitors can find the geometric raffia textiles of past African kingdoms.

These days, raffia is enjoying a bit of a fashion moment, appearing on designer handbags from Kate Spade and Christian Dior. But its next creative iteration might be a design of your own. Natural raffia is available at many crafts stores, as is synthetic raffia, which comes in a range of beautifully flashy hues. The threads bring their tropical mood wherever they go. Raffia can deliver unexpected whimsy to a tote bag, a place mat, a throw rug, or a curtain. But it might be most festive at cocktail hour, forming a joyous rainbow of stirrers for a tray of tall drinks.

Tips for Crafting with Raffia
Natural or synthetic raffia can be used in any of these projects. In addition to offering more color choices, the synthetic variety comes in a continuous length, making it easier to work with; a ribbon of natural raffia is usually a yard long at most. To embroider, thread either kind of raffia onto a needle with a large eye, such as a tapestry, embroidery, or chenille needle.

Raffia Throw Rug and Raffia Slippers
This throw rug's leafy design, made with raffia in three cool-green shades, conjures a vision of palm fronds moving in the breeze. A pair of bedroom slippers is trimmed with bright-yellow raffia fringe.

Raffia Throw Rug How-To
Raffia Slippers How-To

Raffia Window Curtain
A series of small, tufted raffia bow ties, stitched with matching thread onto a sheer curtain, instantly raises a window's sunniness quotient.

Raffia Window Curtain How-To

Raffia Tote Bag and Straw Hat
A plain canvas tote and a straw beach hat are turned into original creations.

Raffia Tote Bag and Straw Hat How-To

Raffia Cocktail Set
Mini raffia pom-poms atop bamboo skewers create a stir. Bright-green raffia wrapped around a pitcher provides more texture.

Raffia Cocktail Set How-To

Raffia Place Mats
Geometric designs can be added easily to place mats. The embroidered pattern and the different colors of raffia offer a nice way to make plain table linens more distinctive.

Raffia Place Mats How-To

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