Macramé in Haiti: A Travelogue

6.3 / Dimensions: Expanded Measures of Textiles

Macramé in Haiti: A Travelogue

By Emily Katz February 26, 2015

Portland, Oregon: December 2013

I learned about Fait La Force, an artisan cooperative based in Haiti and New York, from Bekah, whom I follow on Instagram (her username is @awelltraveledwoman). In December 2013, she visited Haiti with her family and to teach, and her photos intrigued me. In Oregon, it was chilly and dark, and almost across the world there she was, in a tank dress, with plants all around, smiling and teaching. And there were photos of her playing in the waves at the beach. I wanted to see it all for myself.

Portland, Oregon: February 5, 2014

I reached out to Emma, who runs the New York office of Fait La Force, and she invited me to teach macramé to the people in the Haitian community, in order to produce larger quantities of my macramé items and to help boost their economy.

Portland, Oregon: September 2014

After months of conversation about travel details, I bought my ticket to Haiti.

Baskets on the side of the road on my first day in Port au Prince. Photo: Emily Katz

Port au Prince, Haiti: November 10, 2014

I stepped off the plane and felt nearly pushed backward by the force of the heat. In the airport, musicians in brightly patterned cotton garments sang in harmony, songs as ardent as their attire. I had never imagined I would visit Haiti, but there I was, with sixty pounds of cotton rope in my suitcase.

Greeting me at the airport were my hosts, Chandler and her husband Josh, the only white faces in the sea of smiling, waving, and yelling Haitians. We immediately drove to a factory to see if the woman who runs it could provide beads for my macramé pieces. There, we drank smoothies while sorting through shelves and baskets, but none of the beads had holes large enough for my rope to go through. We had planned to visit a man who makes hammocks—I hoped he could use some of my techniques to make me some special pieces—but a recent rainfall made the roads to his house too dangerous.

We ate lunch on the covered patio of a fancy hotel overlooking Port au Prince. The food was terrible: tuna sandwiches on white bread without crusts, French fries, and fried steaks. While we ate and drank our Prestige beers, it rained—a refreshing release from the heat.

A man across the street from the Fait la Force workshop makes these metal chairs out of scrap metal that he welds together. I saw it on my first day and was excited about the idea of making something with it. Photo: Emily Katz

After lunch, we visited one of the cooperative’s basket weavers, who has been crafting beautiful palm baskets since the 1960s. Chandler spoke to him in a singsong Creole, and he brought us down the side of a rugged hill to see his workshop. Rebar stuck out of the walls, roof, and the steps down into the open concrete structure where he stored his materials, and probably slept; it had no paned windows or furnishings. It only contained metal frames and piles of palm, the materials of his trade.

That night, we made tacos at my hosts’ place, which is an expatriate pizza joint on the weekends, and got to know each other over the board game “The Settlers of Catan” and more bottles of Prestige. Chandler and Josh had fallen in love with Haiti after working for a nonprofit that taught women skills like bead making and sewing; now, after two years, they run the organization. We laughed and talked until too late to adequately rest before our planned 7:30 a.m. departure.

Getting set up in the studio before the first day of class. Photo: Emily Katz

Port au Prince, Haiti: November 11, 2014

A thirty-minute drive in the truck, with a dog on my lap, while balancing coffee in one hand and a smoothie in the other, became part of our daily adventure. The roads were congested with people, motorbikes, and brightly painted trucks that function as the public transportation. Where the roads weren’t paved, they were light-brown dirt paths full of deep potholes; after a big rain, they became rivers. I saw street vendors selling many varieties of bananas, men and women carrying inconceivably large things on their heads such as TVs and large baskets of fruit, and a lot of people merely standing around.

The workshop for Fait la Force is down a tiny alley in Tabarre, in Port au Prince’s red zone—which means that Embassy visitors are discouraged from traveling there—but I felt safe and well protected. I barely had a day to take stock of what materials were available to me and to plan my lessons. Since the beads I had hoped for weren’t available, I felt unprepared. I wished I had made better requests before I arrived. But Chandler was very industrious and willing to work hard to procure what I needed. We conversed with the resident metal worker and brainstormed about some handmade metal beads. Meanwhile upstairs, some young men got to work making leather beads for me. Chandler and her team were able to quickly execute my ideas.

Sketches and samples, bits of leather and hand carved horn to use in the macramé. Photo: Emily Katz

Port au Prince, Haiti: November 12, 2014

It was the first class of four. The students arrived at 9:30 a.m. Each class had six to ten students, depending on the project. We gathered in a long room with turquoise-painted walls, a large table, and windows without panes; the hot breeze came in as it pleased. Fabian, the manager of operations for the co-op, translated my instructions into Creole. Usually I begin my classes with an introduction about who I am and why I teach macramé. But it didn’t make sense to do that in this setting, and I began by showing the class how to cut the measured rope and the first knot technique.

Port au Prince, Haiti: November 13, 2014

As the days went on, thanks to the tiny bit of French I learned in high school, I found it easy to learn a few Creole words. “Góch, dwat, góch, dwat” means “left, right, left, right.” Teaching macramé in a foreign language was difficult, and
the students’ skills varied greatly. One man, a master hammock weaver, was there to learn a new technique that he hoped to use in his craft. It took him a little while to understand how the knots worked, but once he did, he was very efficient. Michelange was the fastest learner; she ran the jewelry department of the collective and had experience working with details and repetition. After the other students left, she would stay and watch me work on some larger pieces and mirror what I was doing. We laughed while we knotted, picking up bits of language but mostly just smiling together and taking joy in our work.

Chandler, my host and the incredible woman who runs the organization, working the indigo vat. Photo: Emily Katz

Port au Prince, Haiti: November 14, 2014

By the third day, it was clear that several students took to the knots and understood the patterns quickly and easily. The class worked diligently, mostly in silence. A few teenage girls, distracted by their phones and their friends, had difficulty following the pattern. Even for me, it’s quite easy to forget if it’s time to begin on the right or on the left; with distractions, it’s nearly impossible.

Port au Prince, Haiti: November 15, 2014

After four days, we made: seventeen plant hangers, half of them indigo-dyed; six wall hangings incorporating Haitian rope; five wall hangings on leather-wrapped pipe, with indigo-dyed details; one door curtain; one macramé chair; macramé handles for future baskets; macramé plant-hanger tops to attach to future baskets. Though we had accomplished a lot, we continued to brainstorm ideas for hammocks, rugs, and room dividers as well as ways we might be able to collaborate across the globe.

One of the women helping hang the plant hangers up to dry after their dip in the indigo dye. Photo: Emily Katz

Initially I thought the most difficult part of my experience was that I hadn’t prepared enough. I thought if I had sent more detailed instructions in advance, or if I had been more organized, the classes would have been more productive. But there is something about Haiti that changed my perspective. Working with the students on those hot days, eating together the same lunch of rice and beans and fresh juice—I let go of my concerns about productivity. Still, though I succeeded at my task of teaching the students a new skill, was I inspiring them? Would these women and one man apply these skills to further their economic potential? I wanted to leave with a feeling that I had made a difference.

In the last class, one of the women—fast and hardworking but quiet, always waiting patiently for the next task—offered me a macramé book in Creole. I didn’t know how long she had the book, if she already knew the knots, or if she just found the book and was excited to share it with me. I learned later that she had loved learning this new skill, and she already had ideas of how to use it more. I also learned that when she first came to work at the cooperative, she was living in a tiny concrete room with her three sons, sleeping on a simple sheet on the hard floor. After a year of working at the co-op and learning various crafts, she bought a real bed and made paper flowers to decorate the room. She was still sharing it with her boys, but the opportunity to work had breathed some sweetness into her life. This was my real purpose. I was teaching a simple knotting technique, but Haiti and her people were my teachers. I saw such deep poverty holding hands with elegance: the women who cooked outside on the hard and sometimes very muddy ground came to class with clean hair and ironed clothes. I was deeply touched by her gesture, the simple act of showing me the book that she obviously had treasured as one of her few belongings.

The macramé chair, complete. Photo: Emily Katz 

The week had been fruitful in so many ways. My suitcase was full of new macramé works, ready for holiday sales; I learned about a place that I had rarely considered, much less as one that would capture my heart; I made new friends and had a few adventures. But most of all, I felt a deep sense of gratitude that I was part of something greater than myself. I felt a detachment from many material things. I spent my days with people who had so little in the way of physical objects, yet they were generous with their time, money, and friendship.

On the last day of class, we took a group photo, I thanked the students for their hard work, and they were paid for their time. Then many of them surrounded me like it was the final day of summer camp. In excited voices, they asked questions. Was I married? Was I bringing my partner next time? Did I have children? Was my hair real? Was I happy? When would they see me again? When was I coming back?

I will definitely be going back.

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