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Les Petites Mains des Bahamas: Couture des Iles discusses its hand plaited clutches for Beulah London

Beulah London recently collaborated with Couture Des Iles Nassau, a Nest Artisan Guild business based in the Bahamas, to create the Aesha Pom Pom Dark Straw Clutch, now sold in their shop on 77 Elizabeth Street  in London, as well as online. Each clutch is handmade from the “plaiting” of Bahamian Silver top Palm trees, making it an eco-friendly spring or summer accessory. To learn more about the making of the clutch and what the collaboration means for the female artisans of Couture Des Iles, Nest sat down with the business’s founder, Fanny Oldfield.

Nest: Tell us more about the plaiting craft technique and its roots in the Bahamas. How long have artisans been plaiting? Is it mostly women who perform this work?

Fanny: The tradition of Bahamian straw work, or plaiting, has been practiced by mostly women in the islands for hundreds of years. Historians believe Bahamian straw weaving began with the native Arawaks, who created baskets used for carrying fruits and catching fish, clothing, and head coverings using palm leaves.

Bahamian straw workers typically start their craft at an early age, learning at the feet of their mothers and grandmothers. Take a close look at a straw product – or plait, as it is known in The Bahamas – and you will begin to understand the intricacies of the weaves that carry names such as peas ‘n rice, Bahama Mama, Jacob’s ladder, sour sop, pineapple and fish pot.

Nest: Where does the plaiting typically take place? Is there a social element to the craft?

Fanny: The women plait mostly at home and love to plait with company. It is a social activity as they enjoy talking, sharing stories, and laughing while they work.

Nest: What is so special about the Bahamian Silver Top Palm Trees?

The Silver Top Palm grows into a medium size tree up to 10 meters in height with smooth bark. Its leaves are palmate (arranged like the palm of a hand) to approximate 75 cm (30 inches) wide. The underside of the leaf has silvery hairs on it giving the species its common name. This species occurs throughout all of the islands of the Bahamas, south Florida, Mexico as well as the Caribbean.

The dried leaves are heavily used in straw work for making hats, baskets, mats and many other items. The leaves are also used in roofing and the plant is often used as an ornamental.

Nest: We would love to know more about the artisan women who worked on this particular handbag with Beulah London.

Fanny: Because I grew up in Paris, I personally like to call the ladies that plait for us, LES PETITES MAINS DES BAHAMAS – translated as “little hands of the Bahamas”, connoting fairy-like levels of dexterity. Despite the diminutive tone of the profession’s official appellation, its members are treated with great respect both within France and around the world.

Isabell, who will be 79 yrs old next week, is the lady who plaited most of the straw used for Beulah’s clutches. Isabell lives on the beautiful island of Long Island, and has been plaiting since she was 5 yrs old. She still harvests all the straw for her work herself. Isabell has five children, 9 grandchildren and 4 great grandchildren.

Nest: How has the partnership with Beulah made an impact for Couture des Iles?

Fanny: Our partnership with Beulah London has given us new opportunity to export our handbags to England., a London-based global luxury retailer for men and women, has since requested samples from us, so we are excited about this new door being opened up! Since our collaboration with Beulah London, we have recently finished our largest order yet of 120 handbags for Ron Herman Japan. 2000 yards of plaited straw need to be used to complete the order! It has definitely helped increase the amount of work we had for our artisans.

For every project, we always make sure to provide “Les petites mains des Bahamas” prints of the final handbags, lookbooks, promotional photos etc. The women absolutely love it and are very proud to see the final handbag product. As they like to say, “plaiting is no longer a craft for the straw markets.” They are now plaiting for fashion.