I was lucky to be introduced to several women’s weaving cooperatives in Zanzibar. They were created to help revive the craft, which was falling into decline as fewer people had the skills and knowledge of the old patterns.
Wild date palm leaves are dried and then separated into thin strips – on drying they turn a cream colour which is ideal then for dying in different colours. The patterns have names like batwing, chicken eye, water pipe and naughty woman – there is a lovely book on the subject by Antje Forstler (ISBN 9987 9067 1 0) if you’d like to read further on the subject.
The leaves are woven into long bands called ukili which are 1-6cm wide. This is stitched as a continuous loop to create the desired object – typically baskets, mats, food covers and hats. They were traditionally made by women for their own use but modern day demands on their time, along with new materials, means that the skills are no longer passed down as they used to be.
When I met Bi Mtumwa who lives on the east coast of Zanzibar I was really excited by her enthusiasm to experiment. I started by giving her a simple turned form made of cypress wood to cover but I soon realised that she was really skilled in manipulating the material, so then I started bringing more adventurous shapes – it might look simple but getting the ukili to hug the lines of a concave seat, then over a rounded edge and follow an egg-timer shape to the base… definitely not easy at all.