The lowdown on one of the world's finest natural fibres
WHAT IS RAFFIA?
A natural fibre owing its distinctive aesthetic to the fronds of the raffia palm, its growth is limited to certain tropical regions. The natural look and feel of raffia offers an international appeal to designers and craftspeople.
Raffia is natural, easy to dye, soft to the touch and gentle on the skin, yet irresistibly textural and highly durable. Raffia is naturally waxed, which makes it water-resistant.
When harvested responsibly, raffia is an incredibly eco-friendly material. Pruning leaves at a minimum of 1.2 metres ensures that the growth and health of the palm is preserved. Unfortunately, the fatal cutting of these trees is still needlessly practised in some parts of the world.
Another sustainable attribute of natural raffia products is minimal water usage in its production.
1 raffia bag represents less than 50L of water used, versus 1 cotton t-shirt which generates the use of 2700L of water.
There are often many misconceptions about raffia. In general terms, raffia often refers to a look. Any fibre that looks "earthy" is categorised as. The error is understandable for the layperson as even industry leaders tend to group them under the same umbrella. Here's the difference:
- Raffia: refers to the above description
- Straw: A dry stalk of a cereal plant, such as wheat, rye, or barley, used for making baskets, hats, and other woven goods. It is stiffer and coarser than raffia.
- Rattan: A climbing palm native to Southeast Asia, with long, slender stems that are also used to make furniture, baskets, and other woven goods. It is strong and lightweight, and to some degree quite flexible.
- Jute: A plant grown primarily in India and Bangladesh; jute fibres come from the stem of the plant. It is a strong and durable natural fibre commonly used for making burlap, twine, and rope.
The misconception is precarious for the reputation of the raffia fibre as it tends to bastardise the products. Each natural fibre has its unique characteristics: origin, scarcity, craftsmanship, durability, flexibility, and water resistance.
As the popularity of natural fibres like raffia continues to trend, imitations made from cheap paper/synthetic materials have been introduced to the market. Products made with paper attempt to capture the natural finish of raffia at the cost of sustainability and durability.
Both in contrast to and with respect to its humble roots in traditional Malagasy craft and culture, raffia is an exclusive tattraction in the world of fashion today. The quality of the raffia offered by the marshy regions of Madagascar is, without a doubt, the best on the market. 75% of the world's natural raffia comes from Madagascar.
Unfortuntely, these days raffia wholesalers bypass local artisans and workshops to the profit from big foreign corporations offering to buy the fibre raw and in enormous quantities.
The growth and cultivation of raffia is a process that requires careful control as raffia palm trees only grow in specific conditions and should only be harvested during a particular time of the year.
The export of raw raffia to highly industrialised countries is Madagascan handicraft producers cause of great concern: as big factories integrate machine processes, they jeopardise many rare and special handicraft techniques. The mass exportation also creates a scarcity of raw raffia for local artisans, as they end up with the lower grade leftovers.
In a nutshell, by choosing a raffia bag made in Madagascar, you can help conserve local handicrafts while owning a unique piece with a lower carbon footprint.