Raffia is a humble-looking and relatively inexpensive material of many uses that is sold by the hank at craft stores. Basketmakers use it in coil baskets for forming and wrapping the coil as well as for binding the coils together. Chair seat weavers sometimes use it in children’s chairs, whereas weavers may work it into coarse cloth to add texture. Raffia bows are appropriate for rough-hewn country crafts, and raffia is the material of choice for the protective basket on chianti bottles. Pliable, neutral in color, and easy to braid or twist, raffia also provides its own wrapping and ties. Here are two creative, attractive uses for braided raffia bundles offered by herb craftspersons Linda Fry Kenzle and Barbara Radcliffe Rogers.
• Click here for DIY instructions on making your own
1. Linda’s Everlasting Braid
An everlasting braid provides a decorator touch for places where nothing else fits. Especially suitable beside a door or for brightening a long, narrow wall space anywhere, the woven braid can be made with any weaving material and decorated with any dried herbs or everlastings you choose. We’ve chosen raffia, but Linda also recommends weeping willow, cattail, rope, cord, and yarn.
To make the braid as shown, separate a bundle of raffia that will be 5/8 to 3/4 inch thick when wound tightly, and use scissors to cut it, if necessary, to a length of about 5 feet. Each piece in a hank of raffia usually has a wide and a narrow end, and if all the wide ends have been packaged together, the braid will not be even from end to end. To solve this problem, divide the cut bundle and reverse the directions of half the strands.
Lay the bundle out on the floor and tie a short piece of raffia around the very center of the strands. Fold the bundle in half at that tie, and tie a second short piece of raffia around all the strands about 4 inches from the fold. This forms the hanging loop.
Now take off your shoes, sit down on the floor, and put one foot through the hanging loop; or tie the loop to a doorknob or clamp it to a table. Separate the raffia into three equal bundles, and braid them tightly as though you were braiding hair. When you have about 8 inches left to braid, tie off the braid at the bottom with a separate strand of raffia. You may find it easier to use a rubber band to keep the braid from coming undone while you tie it. The unbraided “tail” will provide a finishing touch.
Remove the tie at the top of the braid. Locate two long pieces of raffia and tie them with a square knot around the bottom of one side of the hanging loop. Wrap them together around and around the bundle, keeping the wraps close enough together to cover the loop completely. When the wrapping strands run out, tuck the end under the previous wrap and pull it tight, then tie on another pair with an overhand knot. Wrap back a turn or two to cover the “splice”, then continue wrapping until the loop is completely covered. Finish by wrapping the base of the loop a few times around, then tie the wrapper with a square knot and trim off any excess raffia.
Tuck and hot-glue sprigs and small bouquets of fragrant herbs and colorful everlastings into the nooks of the braid. Add raffia bows or ribbons at the ends of the braid. Separate and rearrange the unbraided raffia at the bottom of the braid so that the three strands look like one bundle, and trim the ends even. This decoration not only looks good, but, depending on how you decorate it, can emit wonderful aromas to scent your home and add to your household aura.
2. Barbara’s Braided Wreath Base
The size of this braided raffia wreath base depends on the number and length of raffia strands you use: only a few strands or a bundle as fat as you please. We started with a bundle of the same length (5 feet) as for Linda’s Everlasting Braid; the thickness of the bundle when bound tightly was about 11/4 inches.
Braiding the Base
With a short strand of raffia, wrap and tie the bundle together about 6 inches from one end. Hold the short end between your knees (or commandeer a friend to hold it), separate the bundle into three equal parts, and begin braiding as you would hair. Make the braid loose enough so that you’ll be able to insert herb and flower stems but not so loose that it looks skimpy. The best way to achieve a fat, rounded braid is to bring each group of strands over the rest almost at right angles to them.
As you braid, keep in mind the direction in which you want the braid to curve, and always pull the group which will be on the inner side a little tighter than the outer group. This forces the braid to curve so that it can lie flat in a circle. Otherwise, the flat surface will tend to turn on edge when you bring the ends together to form the wreath base.
Periodically, touch the ends of the braid together to check the size. When the braid is the length you want, tie it off with one end of a medium-length piece of raffia, then cross the end of the braid over the beginning and wrap the two together with the other end of the medium-length piece. Tie with a square knot behind the wreath. Trim the tails evenly, but allow them to trail off gracefully. A good rule for length is to have them extend to about the outer diameter of the wreath, but if other decorations are being put over this part of the wreath, you can instead trim the ends close to where they cross or leave them long so they become part of the decoration.
To make a wider base without increasing the thickness, braid two circles of raffia, one of which fits exactly around the outside of the other. Tie them together by lacing raffia back and forth between the two braids. The lacing will pull into the braid and be hidden there as it is in a braided rug. If the two sets of brushy ends are too thick or noticeable, tuck the ends of the smaller ring behind the large one and cut them short. The resulting gap won’t show if you cover the bottom of the base with herbs or flowers.
You now have a wreath base that can be decorated in any number of ways. If it is large or will carry heavy decorations, tie a single crinkle-wire wreath ring (available at craft shops) to the back in several places to maintain the circular shape. Hang the wreath so the ends overlap at the bottom.
Decorating The Wreath
Tie together little bundles of fresh or dried herbs and push the stems into the spaces between the braided strands or into the strands themselves. Fresh herbs will dry right on the wreath. For a kitchen wreath, intersperse little bunches of bouquet garni herbs with dried red peppers and garlic or shallot bulbs. To mount red peppers, tie a 12-inch length of raffia around each stem and push the raffia through the braid, tying the ends firmly on the back of the wreath. Peppers may also be tied together in clusters before mounting. The colors of red peppers, green herbs, and white garlic make a festive holiday wreath.
With a little planning, a raffia braid can be the basis of a garlic wreath. Harvest the garlic before the tops have dried completely. When the tops are limp but not crisp-dry, braid them in as you braid the raffia. You may cover the wreath entirely with tightly packed garlic or space the heads evenly around the circle.
You may push clusters of dried flowers into the braided raffia and longer stems of everlastings into the tie at the base. An arrangement of long- and short-stemmed dried flowers also looks good over the ties at the bottom, with longer sprigs extending outward along the tails and up the sides of the circle. Some plant materials that can add a dramatic effect to the arrangement include blossom spikes of lamb’s-ears, purple basil, and lavender; clusters of pot marjoram blossoms; summer savory stems, bee balm flower heads after the corollas have fallen off; dried chive blossoms, tansy buttons, and pressed bay leaves.
These ideas originally appeared in the October 1991 issue of Phyllis Shaudys’s charming and informative quarterly newsletter, Potpourri from Herbal Acres (Pine Row Publications, Box 428, Washington Crossing, PA 18977), and are used by permission of their creators.