The Art Of Pitcairn Part II  Weaving

Technical Details - Part II - Weaving

        Release Date:             18 October 2002
        Denominations:            40c, 80c, $1.50, $2.50
                                          With a central tab in se-tenant strip.
        Stamp Design :            Clive Abbott, London, UK
        Printer :                      Joh Enschede, The Netherlands
        Process:                     Offset Lithography
        Paper :                       Sopal Stimat 110gsm
        Stamp Size :                50.00mm x 25.5mm
        Perforation Gauge :     12.75 x 13.25
        Sheet    :                     Setenant strip with central tab
        First Day Cover  :       $6.20

The Pitcairners are skilled weavers.  The evidence can be seen in their work which is sold to tourists on passing cruise ships, or mailed all over the world.

In this superbly illustrated setenant strip, we are pleased to feature two Pitcairn women who sadly passed away last year, but were both experts in this craft.  Millie Christian can be seen on the $1.50 stamp, working on a basket over a round wooden mould, while Thelma Brown is seen with a display of a variety of baskets in the Square on a day when cruise ship passengers have come ashore.

We are grateful to Meralda Warren of Pitcairn, who has kindly provided us with a background to the process illustrated on this stamp issue.

The leaves used in weaving on Pitcairn are referred to as ‘thatch’.  Some are taken from the Pandanus Palm and these have thorns down each edge.  Those shown on this stamp issue are from the Piory (Paioori) Palm which are ‘thornless’ and are privately owned by individuals on the island.  The leaves are cut as close to the trunk as possible.  The older harder leaves are used to line the baskets or to make mats.  The inner leaves are softer and are used for the ‘whites’ of the baskets or dyed.  The tender heart of the palm is only cut when the palm requires thinning and these leaves are used to make the Panama hats, as they are pliable and dry whiter than the other leaves.

The thatch is bundled up and taken to a comfortable spot where the ends are ‘topped’ and the centre ridge scraped.  It is then left for a day to ‘mae mae’ or wilt then, in bundles of 15 to 20 thatch, they are rolled together in a ball and tied with string.  The balls of thatch are later unfurled into a huge pot of boiling water and left to boil for at least 30 minutes before being removed and spread in the sun to dry.  For a quick, whiter dry, the thatch is placed in a cooling oven in which bread may have just been baked.  The traditional stone oven is ideal for this.  Once the thatch is completely dry, the wrinkles are smoothed out as it is again, rolled into balls.

Each morning for at least a week, the balls are unfurled and the thatch scraped across the back of a pair of scissors before being spread in the sun to dry for the day.  Each evening it is all balled up again.

Coloured dyes are mixed and boiled in a large pot on the ‘bolt’ – an open cooking fire.  The dried thatch balls are opened up and a few thatch are added into the pot at a time and plunged using a stick into the dye until the right depth of colour is achieved.  Normally, the thatch would be in the dyepot for between 20 and 30 minutes.  Other colours are added as the dyepot weakens and the root of the tumeric ginger plant is often added for extra vivid colouring.  No two batches come out the same, each takes on its on hue.

The thatch is wiped clean with a cloth and the process of drying, scraping and balling begins again.

To prepare for weaving, the thatch is scraped across the back of a pair of scissors one last time and cut to the desired length.  With a needle, the backbone is removed together with the very outer edges of the blade.  Each half blade is then again divided into even strips with a sailmaker’s needle.  For the shopping and sewing baskets which have ‘Pitcairn Island’ woven in, the ends of thatch are sewn on a sewing machine.  The ‘Hu a’ (strands) are stripped out from the sewn base and woven with the natural dried white thatch to form the pattern of the weave.  The base of the basket is tacked to the block or mould.  At the edge of the basket the Hu a is turned back forming a woven edge called a Hei ei.  This stops the weave from becoming loose.  On the $1.50 stamp, Millie Christian is demonstrating the weaving of a sewing basket over a wooden mould.  The basket linings are made from the tougher older thatch.

The apparent ease and speed with which Pitcairn women complete these complex patterns with words woven into the sides is fascinating to any observer.  Once complete, the woven basket is ironed with a damp cloth over the basket to help set the Hu a.

On the shopping baskets, handles are woven first using a rawhide whip plait over a good hemp rope.  A second weave over the top in both dyed and plain white thatch, completes the handle.

To deter insects, the completed baskets are wiped down with kerosine and dried.

Fans are woven from course thick thatch into a flat weave.  A sennit is plaited separately as the edging.  A piece of whittled bamboo forms the inner strength of the handle which has two layers of rawhide whip plait woven around.  The sennit is sewn on and flowers, made from thatch are sewn to decorate the centre of the fan.

The square thatch baskets displayed by Thelma Brown on the $2.50 stamp are known locally as Tara baskets, after a Tahitian visitor who brought one of these to Pitcairn in the 1960s.  A more recent innovation is the plastic strapping woven utility baskets used to carry all manner of items.  These are durable and easily cleaned.

View Art of Pitcairn Part I - Woodcarving