Norfolk Island Plaiters: Linking Norfolk’s past, present & future, with a twist.
It is social time and story time when Norfolk Island plaiters get together. The laughter can be as quick as the hands that work to prepare and fold the various materials into shape. The rhythm of the plaiting and the story telling and always the laughter can seem like a richly-orchestrated song which both speaks to the Island’s cultural past while influencing its future. It is simultaneously whimsical and important; ancient and new. And as with so many things on Norfolk Island, it is undergoing a rebirth.
Weaving and plaiting within the Norfolk culture – the former, interweaving strands of material into the desired shape or object; the latter, braiding material into long multi-strand strips or sennits and then sewing the sennits together – goes back to our Tahitian foremothers on Pitcairn Island and was carried to Norfolk when the Pitcairn Islanders arrived in 1856. While the two techniques are still practised on Pitcairn, the lack of the pandanus plant on Norfolk until relatively recently has over the years made plaiting the common method on this island.
In the days long before regular visits by cargo ships and planes, plaiting was practised mostly by women but also by men to produce hats, baskets, mats and the occasional stock whip. Made for practicality, you could in addition expect some kind of personal stamp or individual adornment to identify the maker. Plaiters can still tell which hats have likely been made by whom from the materials used, the style and symmetry of the weave or the woven intricacy and ornamentation of the hatband.
Of course, a lore would develop about master plaiters. Virtually every Norfolk plaiter I spoke with about plaiting would first acknowledge his or her teacher and sometimes their teacher’s teacher before describing their own work. The late Beattie Bigg, Dianne Buffett and Mary-Jo (“Aunty Mim”) Nobbs, as well as Maeve Hitch, Edie Christian and Joy Cochrane are only a few of the teachers you’ll hear mentioned. Indeed, Aunty Mim, who died in 1979 at the age of 94, looms as the matriarch of modern Norfolk plaiters. Nearly every plaiter today can trace a line of instruction back to her. She especially liked to plait with corn husks, which when dried have a beautiful white texture, but are notorious for having to join the shorter husk parts together much more frequently than the other, longer material. Aunty Mim taught plaiting at the Norfolk Island Central School and, as they would say, would plait just about anywhere there was room for her sennits. Her hats are remarkable for their tight, even weave and the crisp shape of the brims.
This link with the past is immediate and inescapable. Some plaiters will say they can actually feel a sense of continuity with their ancestors when they plait. And now yesterday’s students are teaching others. You’ll find Greg Magri, one of our younger master plaiters, teaching youngsters how to plait as part of Norfolk Studies at the school. Greg can also be found plaiting with others, including visitors, at the Golden Orb Bookshop and at the Sunday Market. As well, visitors may have watched Kath King or Rhonda Griffiths demonstrate plaiting on a cultural tour. And so it goes.
Several traditional materials are used on Norfolk for plaiting. Rahooloo, which is the dried bark of the banana tree, is a common material known for its multi-coloured texture and relative ease of use. Moo-oo is a tough grass-like flax often found on our sheerest cliff faces where the cows can’t reach it. Plaiters like moo-oo for its strength and flexibility, despite its sharp, serrated edges. Coastal flax is another commonly-used plant, as well as the soft-textured, durable drain flax found in our streams. Corn husks, again, make a beautiful weave, as does the lush screw palm or mountain rush. But materials, as do traditions and cultures, change over time, and Norfolk plaiting is certainly no exception. Some plaiters like to work with the fronds of the Kentia palm, which is native to Lord Howe Island some 600 miles away and was introduced to Norfolk in the early 20th-century. And I’ve seen some exquisite baskets constructed from the plastic packing straps used to secure our freight cargo. Interestingly, weaving is in the process of being resurrected. Joy Cochrane, for instance, has woven hats of rahooloo, moo-oo and flax on a traditional weaver’s block similar to what was used on Pitcairn Island.
I recently met with Kath King to get a clearer idea of what it takes to produce a “Bounty” hat, perhaps the most common object plaited. I would imagine almost every Norfolk Island resident and Bounty descendant that’s ever been to Norfolk has a Bounty hat. Basically a sun hat, it’s an essential part of the costume Islanders wear each year on Bounty Day, the 8th of June, to celebrate the anniversary of the Pitcairn Islanders arriving on Norfolk. I asked Kath to describe making a Bounty hat from coastal flax.
In the broadest terms, the production of a hat begins with the collection and preparation of the material, and the plaiting of the material to form the hat. Coastal flax is relatively common, particularly if you’re prepared to scale a rocky cliff. Once the flax is collected, each approximately metre-long frond is separated into four to six strands, depending on the desired width of the plait, and then each strand is scraped to soften the pliability of the tough flax structure. To say the least, it’s about technique: not only regarding the efficient use of time, but plant material can bruise and the proper care of the material in the preparation can determine the quality and longevity of the final product.
There are several traditional plaiting weaves – the Heritage Plait, the Norfolk, the Plain Four are a few – each distinctly different, that plaiters follow. Whatever the chosen plait, strips of the material are plaited into long lengths or sennits. They say it takes some 17 “arm lengths” of sennit to plait an average-sized man’s hat. These sennits are then sewn together to form the crown and brim of the hat. Again, technique is everything. For example, a plaiting rule is the distance between the brim and the crown of a hat is roughly the length of the wearer’s hand. Watching Kath form this crown with the sennit was dazzling and slightly mystifying. It was careful and quick, and just seemed to happen (and I didn’t have the nerve to ask her to undo it so I could watch it again).
I’ve seen Kath plait with her young daughters, Lilli and Cassidy. It is heartwarming to watch them work together. Plaiting will be second nature to the young ones, whatever they do in life. So why does the future of the craft seem fragile and precarious? Because despite the camaraderie and laughter, the deference to the past and the willingness to experiment, plaiting as a dedicated, traditional skill on Norfolk is being practised more and more by fewer people. Dianne Buffett alluded to this when she mentioned to me only five years ago, “… with the tremendous changes occurring in our culture even over my lifetime, plaiting, our food and our language are some of the few traditional elements we have left.” This concern was one of the primary reasons she wrote the invaluable “how to” book, Plaiting In Paradise. Plaiting is labour-intensive and the economics of time work against plaiting on even a semi-regular basis for all but the most passionate. Even at a minimum wage, what is a fair market price for an item that has taken some 16 to 18 hours to make by hand? It makes the skill occasionally seem on the verge of dying out. But right now plaiting seems to be, literally and figuratively, in very good hands.
Image Credit: Robin Nisbet
Article content disclaimer: Article first published in 2899 Magazine V2 Iss1, 2009. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.