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What is Raffia?

By S. Mithra
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

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.

Several examples of common applications show how versatile and creative raffia can be in embellishing gifts, centerpieces, and seasonal projects. For instance, someone can tie it around packages for an organic, rustic touch. A ribbon effect will look especially good if the gift wrap is handmade paper with pressed flowers, brown craft paper, or earth toned tissue. Since it comes naturally dyed in every color from sea green to deep burgundy, it also dresses up unwrapped presents like a book, bag of coffee, candles, or bottle of wine.

Crafters can use this material to braid together lengths of vegetables, such as garlic or onions, to create hanging autumn decorations in the kitchen. Wreaths for any time of the year can be trimmed with bows or sprays of this versatile fiber. Just as a person could arrange peat moss on top of the soil of a potted plant, she could nestle fluffy raffia around the stems in a color that complements the blossoms.

When intertwined to form a loose fabric, raffia weaves into straw hats for gardening, squares for place mats, or a matte for the background of a framed photograph. Woven gift bags made from this material allow the receiver to get a subtle peak into the contents, whether they are wrapped chocolates or seashells. Shredded fiber can line Easter baskets or a tray of decorative gourds.

HomeQuestionsAnswered is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon94359 — On Jul 08, 2010

soap and hot water, then seriously rinsed, hung to dry in warm air. If it's kept damp it will quickly smell then either wash it in bleach or chuck it.

By anon72790 — On Mar 24, 2010

what is the latin name of the palm palm tree?

By anon6637 — On Jan 04, 2008

Hi i had this treatment The guy at the spa told us a great story that this brush that is used to Shmeisse was actually the tressels of Finnish spinsters who got chased through the woods (Not sure why or who was chasing) then got collected in the sun up and sold. but you know what Raffia palm leaf it feels like silk in the Hot steam room Apparently only at the Porchester spa. What ever gerry but I will never look at a pair of raffia baskets the same way again

By anon6335 — On Dec 26, 2007

Hi read your article on Raffia. You will be delighted to know that Raffia is the key component of The Jewish art of Steam room massage "SHMEISSE" The brush that is used is entirely made from broad cream color leaf Raffia. looks like a Hawaiian skirt gathered one end into a handle about 30 inches long. lathered with soap and applied in the steam room to the body. It's been used like this for well over a 100 years but all most exclusively in England. Thank you

By anon1834 — On Jun 17, 2007

How is raffia cleaned???

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