Handmade in the Turks & Caicos: The Evolution of the Middle Caicos Co-Op
Story by Sara Kaufman
Long ago, on a small island in the Turks & Caicos, a group of friends wondered why the beautiful baskets, hats and bags made from local palmtops and grasses were so hard to find. This is the story of the Middle Caicos Co-op and their successful efforts to restore pride in traditional handcrafts, encourage production of all types of crafts and ensure local handcrafts are available for sale in shops throughout the Turks & Caicos Islands.
IN THE BEGINNING
In 1998, the team developing the Crossing Place Trail on Middle Caicos often talked with the villagers about their history and experiences. The tales of the “Federation” were intriguing — a network for TCI artisans making and selling traditional straw work; groups of women working together, cleaning grasses, making sisal mats, sewing fanner baskets . . . but what happened?
The fanner grass still grew along the shores and in the marshes, the palm trees were plentiful and healthy, but very few artisans were producing traditional straw work for sale or even for their own use. A long and somewhat sad story emerged. The distribution of the straw work from this isolated island to shops on other islands was difficult and irregular. Most of the handcrafts were sent on a commission basis and the funds often never came back. Items would be ordered, but never picked up, with no deposit paid. The National Museum was one of the few regular clients for straw work that paid reasonably well and reliably, with a few retailers from tourist shops occasionally purchasing the crafts, often at very low prices. People moved to other islands, younger hands turned away from working the grass and palmtops . . . and so, by 1998, only a few local residents still produced traditional baskets on a regular basis.
The Middle Caicos Co-op (MCC) began as a volunteer project to set up a collection and distribution system to sell traditional handcrafts and to revitalize the pride and income potential of artisans. The preservation of traditional straw work skills, designs and knowledge was a difficult objective, but the Middle Caicos Co-op boldly started in 1999 with four gifts of $250 to set up an inventory fund so handcrafts could be directly purchased when delivered. The marketing and distribution was undertaken as a whole for all the artisans, with tags designed and printed, crafts marketed and distributed to retailers — all volunteer work for the first year! A small wholesale mark-up was added to the artisan cost of each item, but this did not nearly cover the ongoing expenses.
The logistics of distribution to small retail outlets, a few baskets at a time, led to a myriad of problems with cash flow — before worrying about further sales, making a profit or even breaking even. More volunteers pitched in to help with transport, tagging, accounting and storage, all the operational tasks to move forward the market for traditional handcrafts and to ensure actual benefit to the artisans.
The increase in supply of local handcrafts was supported by a dedicated group of retailers who continue to respond with interest and loyalty. They’ve absorbed in turn a creeping rise in the prices of wholesale crafts and an undersize retail margin, acknowledging the value of promoting and protecting local handcrafts.
It was increasingly obvious to all that the money received by the artisans for handcrafts was too low. The financial compensation paid them was disproportionate to the work effort invested and the heritage being lost was significant. The goal became to actually study the raw material collection, working processes and the weaving/sewing involved to move prices towards a living wage of $4/hour (the suggested minimum hourly wage in TCI) for the artisans.
A QUESTION OF MATERIALS
The issue of raw material supply is becoming more important as development expands throughout the country. Traditional straw work in TCI utilizes three main plants: fanner grass, silvertop palm and whitetop palm. Fanner grass is a very distinct grass growing in salty areas, shoreline or marshes. It is plentiful only on North and Middle Caicos, but now becoming harder to find. A recent government subdivision offers building lots in one of the most important fanner grass sites in the country! In the past, brush fires would regenerate the fanner grass sites, but fires no longer run along the shore freely. A study is to be commissioned shortly to ensure the future of the traditional handcrafts is not brought to a halt by lack of raw materials! Fortunately, palmtops are still plentiful and the use of the fronds does not harm the trees in any way.
STRAW WORK BASICS
These raw materials must be gathered from diverse sites on the Islands, dried, cleaned and prepared into working materials — a process that takes several days to complete. The handcrafts are made either from plaiting the palmtop fronds in a variety of shapes and patterns or by sewing baskets with the fronds used as thread over and around the fanner grass. While plaiting can be likened to braiding — a repetitive and soothing twisting of fibers that is almost hypnotic to watch — sewing the fanner grass baskets is a focused task that demands strength and accuracy in each stitch, pulling the frond thread tightly over the grass to shape the basket as it grows. The plaits, made from split palmtop fronds, can use from 4 to 19 strands intertwining in the pattern. The finished plaits form long, undulating coils of flat straw work, from 1 to 3 inches wide, that are later sewn round and round into bags and hats. Interestingly, the lengths of plait are still measured and paid for in fathoms, an early nautical measurement brought with the sailing ships!
Fanner grass baskets were once used to carry water and the stitching is small, even and rigid. Today, the shapes and sizes of the fanner grass work produced are a tribute to the creativity of the artisans. An amazing array can be seen at the wholesale depot and in special orders completed.
The introduction of traditional hand-carved model sailboats was another major step for the Middle Caicos Co-op and drew in a new group of artisans. Sailing these boats is a treat of splashing alongside, adjusting the tiller and sails to follow the wind (or the race course).
These model sailboats are built in Bambarra, Middle Caicos from large branches of the Gum-Elemi tree (Bursera simaruba), a Caribbean softwood found throughout the Turks & Caicos Islands. The sail plan reflects all the actual rigging found on a full size sloop. Stays/shrouds can be tightened as needed, sails hoisted/furled with sheets as normal. Each boat has its weatherboard to stabilize it in the water, as the gum-elemi wood is very light and there is no weight in the boat’s keel.
This type of model boat was a common childhood treasure, with children and adults involved in carving, building and racing their sailboats. An energetic and active sport beloved by participants and spectators, the boats are sailed in the shallow waters of the salt ponds or along the seashores.
Middle Caicos Model SailboatThe Middle Caicos Sailing Fleet (eight boats from 15 to 54 inches long) can be booked for special events and several model sailboat races are held each year on the island. The annual New Year’s Day Race is a welcome beach day to usher in the new year; the Valentine’s Day Cup fills an exciting weekend in mid-February and in August at the traditional MC Expo festival, the beach is lined with folks cheering both the big sloop race and the model sailboats.
A GROWING INTEREST
The fundamental principle of the Middle Caicos Co-op has remained unchanged: to pay the artisans directly when they deliver their handcrafts. This has proved to be a fine motivating factor for encouraging artisans to take up straw work and their number grew from 5 to over 20 in the first two years. The use of cheques was introduced and eventually accepted as reliable payment. With no banks on many of the Islands this was a tricky process, but essential to allow the Co-op to organize its working capital and payments. More retailers were becoming interested, additional marketing efforts were being made, demonstrations of the handwork and talks on traditional crafts were organized and the momentum carried the Middle Caicos Co-op forward.
By early 2003, there were about 40 artisans submitting their work to the Co-op, average age roughly 60. Initially, artisans were from Middle Caicos and North Caicos, but slowly, artisans from South Caicos, Grand Turk and Providenciales are becoming involved.
The principle of direct and full payment for handcrafts received by the Co-op has recently become vulnerable as growth in both the number of artisans and the amount they produce requires an ever-increasing supply of working capital. The logistics of operating from Middle Caicos became more unwieldy as the majority of both artisans and clients were from other islands. Amazingly, in the first quarter of 2003, the Co-op purchased $14,000 worth of handcrafts; sorting, tagging and transporting it to and from Middle Caicos was crazy!
The need for volunteer efforts and further working capital to properly market and distribute the handcrafts are critical, as the wholesale margin applied cannot yet support the full operating costs and increasing inventory. Both tourists and the home market need to be educated to accept a realistic price for handcrafted goods made in TCI; a price that offers both dignity and encouragement to the artisans.
A BIG STEP FORWARD
In July 2003, the Middle Caicos Co-op took a huge step, and consequent risk, to bring the handcrafts to greater visibility by opening a wholesale depot in Providenciales. The Caicos Handcraft Co-op at The MarketPlace will take over the wholesale inventory, marketing and distribution operations under a separate business license. Over 60 artisans are fulfilling an active role and legislation now exists for a registered co-operative to be formed, owned and operated by the members.
Hopefully, the longtime dream of four friends will soon be real: an established and stable cottage industry of crafts, handmade in TCI. As a secure income becomes attainable for more self-employed individuals, the Co-op fulfills the original goals of preserving, promoting and protecting TCI culture, while diversifying local income potential.
The Middle Caicos Co-op — the artisans and many volunteers — have worked hard to achieve a resurgence of traditional TCI craft production. They are now ready to reach out into the market across the Islands and abroad with a website, but the future for traditional straw work and new handcrafts is fragile. Deliberately stimulating supply to create a significant inventory, the Caicos Handcraft Co-op is overflowing with a wide range of wonderful TCI handcrafts . . . and more steadily arrive!
An open opportunity exists to contribute to TCI’s future cultural health — as a retailer looking for goods to display/sell, as a volunteer interested in handcrafts, as an artisan member, as a company wanting displays or decorations for the office, as a promoter looking for event gifts/prizes, as an individual looking to buy presents! All these types of assistance and active interest are needed to stabilize the Co-op as an ongoing business and to support the growing numbers of artisans.
In addition, funds are being sought to enable the registered, legal Co-op to take over all the operations and business developed to date. A copy of the project proposal is available on request. The dream is tangibly close — an open, non-profit, stable co-operative, its business operations managed by its members to promote traditional TCI handcrafts, new local works made in TCI and local culture. Let’s make “Handmade in TCI” a proud, visible statement that TCI heritage and creativity are valuable.
The Caicos Handcraft Co-op Wholesale Depot is open at The MarketPlace in Providenciales on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 10 AM to 3 PM. For more information, fax (649) 946-6132 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Marta Morton, owner of Harbour Club Villas, shot this photo on the magical island of Salt Cay. The foreground is filled with the endemic National Flower Turks & Caicos Heather in full bloom. St. John's Anglican Church, built in the early 1800s, is in the background. To see more of her work, visit www.myturksandcaicosblog.com