Glengoffe reviving straw weaving tradition to tackle unemployment

Sunday, June 24, 2018

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A group of teenage boys watching curiously as 85-year-old Olga Stephens demonstrate basic straw-weaving techniques is not a scene witnessed often in the rural community of Glengoffe, St Catherine. But members of the rural community, once considered the mecca of straw weaving in Jamaica, are hoping that the latest investment in the craft in the area will revive the dying tradition and be the answer to the high level of unemployment.

Located some 25 miles outside of Spanish Town, Glengoffe was once a prime supplier of art and craft products created from straw to Jamaican vendors and tourists. Stephens, who is known to community members as “Mama”, said in the community's prime, people would come from all across Jamaica to buy products from artisans and sell them to tourists and hotels.

“As far as the eye could see, there was straw and people weaving straw,” Stephens said. “Everybody was involved in straw, but the young people did not want to carry on the trade so it just die down.”

Hat maker Charmine Simms, who has lived in the community for over 60 years, agrees, adding that even her younger sisters who are now in their forties had no interest in carrying on the tradition.

“I got involved from I was a child with my mom. I started to hem when I was about six years old, and learned to plait and weave when I was about 10. My mom, my grandmother, my aunts, everybody around us was weaving, so we as kids just get involved. That's how we got pocket money as children and it was how we went to school. It was the living of people in Glengoffe at the time,” she said.

However, over the years, Simms has watched the craft and the livelihood of the residents of Glengoffe take a nose dive.

“It was lucrative first-time and everybody could make a living from it, but now, with the economy the way it is, selling for us is not feasible, especially for the young people, so they are not so much interested in it.”

Both Simms and Stephens are hopeful, however, that straw weaving is finally making a comeback in the area, especially with the introduction of the Sandals Foundation Straw Artisan Project. The programme began in 2017 with 26 women who were taught the craft and business principles during weekly lessons held at the Community Development Centre office in Glengoffe. They were also taught how to create, price and market their products.

Falling under the foundation's Women Helping Other's Achieve (WHOA) initiative, the programme is aimed at empowering the women by creating an avenue for gainful employment which will, in turn, help them to be better able to provide for their families.

Thirty-three-year-old mother of three Melissa Harper is one of the participants hoping to benefit from being among the new generation of straw weavers. Harper, who previously worked in a small restaurant, said she was laid off over six months ago and has since been unemployed.

“I didn't know about the straw. I used to see elder people plait them, but I've never sat down and plait them before. Then a friend of mine told me about the class. I went with her and during the two weeks I gradually learnt, and when I did my project it was so beautiful,” Harper recounted.

She has been learning how to make tote bags, small doll hats, table mats and purses and is hoping to start a lucrative business one day.

Executive director of Sandals Foundation, Heidi Clarke, said that through the WHOA programme, the foundation continues to seek avenues through which it can connect women to resources and teach them skills that will allow them to take care of their families.

“The straw industry has great potential for success. The raw material is readily available at little or no cost, and Jamaica has a rich heritage of making quality straw craft which is in high demand by visitors to the island. We have conducted extensive research during this programme and so have a good understanding of the industry,” Clarke said.

She continued, “From the data collected on the different types of straw available, where the straw producers are and from the training itself, we are creating both a manual and a short video to ensure the art, culture and heritage of straw making is carried on.”

Through partnership with Sandals and Beaches resort shops, the project also creates an avenue for artisans to sell their products to tourists, with a percentage of each sale being placed back into funding the programme.

Clarke noted that in addition to reviving the art of straw making, the training will encourage the creation of new and exciting pieces that are relevant to today's market.

“Working with Sandals marketing team, we are incorporating new designs and straw-dying techniques to ensure that the products remain trendy and meet modern standards.”

The programme is being executed with part funding from the Coca Cola Company.

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