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Shopping: Bahamas

Straw Votes : A loop around the Out Islands to see hand-woven hats, baskets and totes

May 26, 1996|RICH RUBIN | Rubin is a New York-based freelance writer

GEORGE TOWN, Bahamas — Beneath the spreading limbs of a ficus tree, three women sit chatting as they braid strands of straw. The clear Bahamian sunlight filters through overhanging branches, dancing across their assembled crafts: hats trimmed with bright strips of fabric, lightweight but sturdy bags, tiny coin purses with flowers designed from rainbow-hued raffia, tightly woven baskets of all sizes and shapes.

This is a typical straw market in the Bahamas' Out Islands--the term generally used for everything outside the tourist-crammed isles of New Providence, home to Nassau, and Grand Bahama, where Freeport is located.

Unlike Nassau's much-touted straw market, where the sales pitch can be aggressive, straw shopping in the Out Islands is a laid-back affair. At least I've found it so as I explored these relatively untouristed isles, including the Abaco Islands, an assortment of tiny cays with fetching names (Green Turtle, Elbow, Man O'War), where little villages have New England-style clapboard cottages painted in bright island colors; long and narrow Eleuthera, its secluded coves ringed by farmland covered with pineapples, okra, peas, peppers and other crops; Harbour Island, a friendly and gorgeous island near Eleuthera that is famous for its pink tinged sand tinted by tiny pieces of coral; and laid-back Exuma, a boating haven and peaceful, largely undeveloped retreat.

I love all of the Out Islands, and I've successfully hunted straw on the Abacos, Harbour Island and Exuma, during several visits over the past two years.

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My first trip to the Bahamas took me to the Abacos, a boomerang-shaped cluster of islands at the country's northern tip. In Marsh Harbour, the largest town in the group, a walk down the main avenue, Bay Street, brings me to a small cottage grandly marked Darville Straw Industry.

There's straw everywhere in the large room, from the products that line the shelves to an assortment of unwoven strands to a half-finished hat in the sewing machine. Here, Parenell Darville tells me about straw making in the Bahamas. No one seems to know exactly how the craft took root here, but it is generally thought that it was probably brought by African slaves.

One major reason the craft proliferated is that the materials are close at hand and free. Parenell goes out with her family to gather fronds from the silvertop palms that grow in profusion throughout the islands. The fronds are hung to dry and then shredded into thin strands. These are plaited together in a process similar to hair braiding, the strips of fiber interlaced to form a pattern. The width of the finished strip depends on how thin individual strands are sliced and how many strands are woven together--23 strands, for example, produce a plait about four inches wide. There are about 25 different weaves unique to the Bahamas.

Silvertop is the most ubiquitous of materials used in Bahamian weaving, but I also saw works woven of light-colored straw from the pondtop palm and the wide, dark strands of coconut palm (interesting to look at but brittle). Sisal, a grass that grows locally, makes a thin, bristly strand that is beautifully fine in texture but difficult to work with so it appears only occasionally. Different colors are achieved through such techniques as singeing over fire to create a dark brown or soaking in salt water to produce black. Sometimes the weavers fashion designs based on the straw's natural variations in color and texture.

The plaited strips are rolled into huge coils and used as the need arises. By cutting off a thin length, the artist creates a bookmark. A wider strip can be the start of a hat. Sew several pieces together, add a vibrant band of cloth and the hat is complete.

Grabbing a large round basket, Parenell shows me the technique used to create it. Unlike hats or tote bags made from plaited strips of dried leaves, the baskets incorporate both stalk and leaf. The stalks are bent into round coils to create the basket's shape, and strands are woven individually around the coils to hold them in place. I saw some baskets of plaited straw, but without the firm structure of the coiled stalks, I was told, they're not very strong.

I'm amazed at the variety of goods on display. Purses run in all sizes. Some are elaborately adorned, using wide swatches of straw for a flashy look; some are simple and tightly plaited with just a spray of flowers across the flap. Baskets display original shapes and designs with squared-off or cylindrical forms and striking rims of contrasting shape and texture.

Among the infinite array of hats, my favorites have a checkerboard pattern of dark brown and light tan. Parenell shows me how to weave straws of different tints together to create a diagonal two-tone effect. This is sometimes used for a whole hat, sometimes just for edging. She shows me how to sew in the brightly dyed raffia, a

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