Dawn is a Canadian crafter skilled in textile work, weaving and toy making, among other arts.
Crafters value raffia for being soft, durable, and easy to dye. It can take the place of cord, grass, leaves, fabric, ribbon, stuffing, floral string, and even paper. A wide variety of hats, mats, baskets, bags, and twine are made from this natural material. Often, it is invaluable to outdoor projects because it doesn't shrink with moisture, yet is pliable enough to weave.
Rafia is made from the leaves of the palm tree Raphia ruffia. It can be bought in natural or colored hanks from a variety of sources.
Young children can do simple work in raffia and be pleased with the attractive results. More skills and stronger fingers are needed for some of the techniques, but it is basically an easily learnt craft.
There are five general categories of raffia work: decorative stitching, raffia winding, raffia weaving, coiled raffia and raffia braiding. Read on to learn about the types of raffia craftung and two unique projects!
The Five Categories of Raffia Work
Canvasses of all weights (Hardanger or burlap) are suitable backgrounds for raffia stitching. They are all open weave and with regularly spaced strands that can be counted for accurate stitching. You will need a large-eyed tapestry or knitter's needle.
Many traditional embroidery stitches can be worked on a larger scale with raffia. Running, slanting, satin, overhand, cross, tent, blanket, stem and herringbone stitches are all successful. You can make distinctive mats, purses or bags in raffia-stitched canvas. Some will have to be lined with or mounted on felt or other fabric to give the article 'body'.
Mats and bowls are made by winding, which is the simplest way of using raffia. You will need round or oval cardboard shapes with a hole cut out in the middle. They can be bought at your local craft supplier or you can make them yourself from firm cardboard. This shape is used as a foundation and raffia is wound around and around to cover it evenly, with the strands overlapping slightly so that there are no gaps. Different color segments will make the pattern interesting and the center hole in the card can be either left open or filled with criss-cross strands or interwoven in a web design.
Starting or joining on new raffia is done by holding the new strand slanting downwards to the right and winding the raffia on straight, over and over it from left to right.
When finishing off, thread the end carefully away under the winding on the wrong side. There are times when you will have to knot raffia ends, make sure to tie firmly and then hammer the knot flat.
Below are instructions for making a selection of simple wound raffia mats, but there is scope, too, for slightly more complicated and unusual designs later in the article. Two of these possibilities, one round, and one square are shown in the picture above.
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A Simple Round Mat
To achieve the results of an outer and inner ring of color, a 6-inch round mat shape has been cut in two and then reassembled.
- Use a compass to make a circle halfway between the outside and the inner hole.
- Cut out the circle with a sharp knife.
- Smooth the edges with sandpaper.
Now the two circles you have made are wound with raffia in separate colors. To make the center motif you divide the hole in the smaller circle into eight with raffia strands tied underneath (further details on this method below).
Then a blanket stitch is worked over each strand in turn moving round in a circle to make the center web. The two sections of the mat are now rejoined, hold them in place with a few temporary stitches and then secure with herringbone stitch in contrasting raffia.
A Simple Square Mat
The square mat is another way of using the basic winding skill.
- Cut a 6-inch square card with a sharp knife into four sections, each 2½ inches by 3½ inches in the arrangement shown in the picture of the finished mat.
- The smaller inner square of the card is not needed.
- Each card is wound first lengthwise with one color raffia and then again across the width in another color, this time leaving a small margin at the ends so that the first winding peeps out.
- Join the cards together in the right pattern with herringbone stitch back and front.
With card looms you can produce denser, firmer results in raffia mats and bowls and more variety in color effect too. Serrated card looms are very simple to use. The serrations hold the warp strands for the raffia weaving. For round mats, the card loom is left inside the work. Rectangular serrated card looms can be used for making bags, here the raffia work is removed from the card.
Bowls can be made on weaving cards. The cut sections of the card are bent up to make the bowl shape and are themselves used as the wrap like in the sketch of the raffia-wrapped bowl above.
Coiled raffia creates really firm, substantial mats and baskets that will stand up to use well. Raffia is used to bind and hold together the solid foundation which can be either can, cord, string, or, when much softer results are wanted, strands of raffia itself.
Raffia, threaded on a suitable needle, is wound around the string and stitched to the previous circle as the coil is gradually formed.
Various stitches are used to produce different patterns but the basic method is always the same.
Another way to use raffia is to make it chunky, for braiding. Decide how thick you want the braids and assemble the necessary number of strands. Knot and attach to a hook, or hail to a board to make the work easy to manage. Divide the chunk into three and braid as you normally would. The finished braids can be stitched together with matching raffia.
One way is to stitch edge to edge for flatness. Alternatively, get a much thicker result, suitable for a door mate, for example, by placing or coiling the braids so that they are upright, with the edges at top and bottom, and the fronts and backs of the braids joined together.
Raffia Flowers on a Wallhanging
You Will Need:
- Green burlap 18 inches by 15 inches
- 2 ½ inch dowel rods, each 20 inches long
- Plastic flower loom
- Selection of colored raffia
- Tapestry or knitter's needle
- Invisible and green thread
- Measuring tape
How to Make the Raffia Flowers
The flowers on this colorful wall hanging are all made on a plastic flower loom. With these looms you can make raffia flowers in two sizes, large ones on the outer prongs and small ones in the middle.
You can also combine the two to make a large flower with a second inner layer of petals.
Follow the instructions with your loom to make four large, four double and four small flowers in the color combination you want.
Assembling the Wall Hanging
- Turn in ½ inch on the 18-inch sides of the green burlap. Hem or machine stitch.
- Fold the raw edge under, top and bottom, and turn in a further ¾ inch. Stitch to form a casing for the dowels.
- Either plan your design on paper or place the flowers on the burlap and move them around until you are satisfied with the result.
- Thread your tapestry needle with raffia and work the stalks with big stem stitches. Use two strands together, if you like.
- Attach the flowers from behind, stitching them securely with invisible thread through the centers.
- Put the dowel rods in the casings. Make a fine raffia braid for a hanging cord and attach it to the top casing 3 inch from the side.
Simple Raffia Mats
You Will Need:
- Round and oval cardboard shapes or firm cardboard to cut your own shapes
- Round serrated card loom
- Natural and colored raffia
- Tapestry or knitter's needle
Green and Black Striped Mat
- Smooth out strands of black and green raffia for flat, even results.
- Wind black raffia all around your card shape.
- Tuck in the ends at the back.
- Wind on green raffia as eight radiating stripes, making sure the spacing is accurate.
- Tuck in at the back or knot.
Spider's Web Mat
- Wind a cardboard shape completely with blue raffia.
- Take a strand of yellow raffia and place it across the diameter of the mat, tying the ends together at the back.
- Repeat with another yellow strand, forming a cross.
- With two more strands intersecting the first two (the mat is now divided into eight sections.)
- Thread a needle with yellow raffia and, on the right side, fill in the center with the stitched weave, working outwards.
- Take the end through to the back and knot it to a yellow cross strand.
- Pencil lines on an oval card shape to guide the spacing of the red and brown raffia.
- Wind on.
- Then wind two strands of black along each color join.
- To one of these strands, tie on another black strand at the back and cross it diagonally over the center hole.
- Knot it on and tuck it under.
- Repeat with the other diagonal and add two more strands across the narrow part of the hole.
- Make the wrap by winding natural raffia on a serrated card loom like in the simple mat example: Each card is wound first lengthwise with one color raffia and then again across the width in another color, this time leaving a small margin at the ends so that the first winding peeps out.
- Use a needle to weave from the center hole with two rounds of each color.
- Then weave the reverse side.
- Leave the card loom on the mat.
About the Rafia Tree
A large palm tree grows leaves that can be stripped and dried to create raffia strands. Like jute or hemp twine, this is a natural fiber that can be woven like straw, tied like silk ribbons or packed like foam. Milliners, crafters and florists enjoy using the grass-like material for a variety of projects and gifts.
The creamy-brown colored lengths come from a specific palm tree that originally grew only on the island of Madagascar. Raphia farinifera actually has the largest leaves of any palm tree, so it is a logical source for fiber. The fibrous leaves are cut off and torn apart in parallel lines to yield very long strips of material. The tree is now cultivated specifically for harvest and export in East Africa, as well.
Thanks for stopping by and happy crafting!
© 2013 Dawn
WL Alexander on December 02, 2017:
Raffia craftwork was a routine part of our curriculum in an Aberdeenshire (Scotland) primary school in the 1950s. In the Seychelles many years later I discovered that raffia came from palm leaves. I immediately sent an email to my old primary school but received no reply - they have long since ceased this practice! No doubt they guessed the email was from an odd fellow?
Nad1st on March 16, 2017:
I just learnt where it comes from. The article will prove useful after I have just visited my local craft store and bought a couple of rafia ball. It looked nice, I thought I'll do something with that. I like the idea that it is natural and so versatile. The steps in the article for the various projects looks clear enough. Just hope that my fingers are long enough too!
Ana Maria Orantes from Miami Florida on July 26, 2014:
Hello D marie, it is wonderful how you explained the making of all the art work. Thank you for the teaching. Your hub is creative and beautiful. I like your pictures. Great job.
Alise- Evon on April 04, 2014:
That was very interesting and well-explained. I just found a great crocheted tote bag pattern using raffia. Now I have some ideas for using scraps/extra. Thanks!
Corey from Northfield, MA on July 30, 2013:
Nice hub. This looks like a craft that could easily be shared with kids. I have never seen this before and it looks like it is a lot of fun and simple enough to do plus the projects are so useful. They would make nice gifts, too! Thanks.
Dawn (author) from Canada on July 30, 2013:
Because they use a cardboard or a loom and it's mostly winding, I think kids would be able to this project quite easily, especially the simple flowers to start. It's a beautiful craft to get into and the craft supplies that are available today make it even easier! Thanks for the comments, vote and the pins!
Debora Wondercheck from 1518 Brookhollow Drive, Suite 15, Santa Ana, CA, 92705 on July 30, 2013:
Wow, these are so amazing. I loved the basket and probably the easiest to make. Would love to try it out. Doesn't look so simple to be doing it with kids, or are they?
Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on July 29, 2013:
These are lovely and so creative! Very well written and illustrated hub.
I would love to make some of them. Voted up and pinning!