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The Sisal Story

Before the sisal

Originally, the Taita baskets were not made from sisal. They were made from fibres of other indigenous plants and trees. For example from a traditional plant called Ngonge, or even from the bark of the more famous Baobab tree.
Other materials like the bark of the Mrungua tree, required biting the fibre until it was soft. You can imagine the extra work such process entailed. Maybe you wouldn’t enjoy your new basket so much either if you knew it was all chewed by someone!

Taita baskets originate from women who were weaving in their own free time for leisure and use the baskets in their homes to keep cereals and pulses. Back in the day barter trade was pretty common. Basket weaving has been passed from generation to generation, were the youngest have picked up the art of weaving from their mothers, grandmothers and mothers in-law.


Sisal (Agave sisalensis) 

Sisal is a hardy, drought-resistant succulent that grows well in the arid regions of Kenya.

The first industrial sisal producing farm was established in Kenya in 1907. Gradually sisal became more known in Kenya and revealed itself as a great material for the art of basketweaving.

Sisal quickly took over the scene and baskets of Mrungua and Ngonge became a thing of the past. The popularity of sisal was due to being drought-resistant, easily grown on the farms, not requiring any irrigation or pesticides. And compared to the local material options, sisal fibres were easier to prepare, and longer and stronger.

It takes a four to five years for a sisal plant to grow to a harvesting age, and you can harvest the leaves once or twice a year for an average of ten years, before the plant flowers, and dies. The flowers grows up 3-4 meters from the centre of the plant, and is strong and light. They are used as lightweight poles for building thatch roofs all over Kenya.

Preparing the sisal

After cutting the outer sisal leaves manually, the plant is simply left alone to grow again till the next harvesting season. 

The cut leaves are industrially 'skinned' and washed as soon as possible to keep only long clean fibres. This process needs to be completed within 24 hours after harvesting, or some patches of sisal will turn brown.

After cleaning the fibre is immediately laid out on drying racks in the sun. It is important for the quality that the sisal now dries as quickly as possible.  After dryeing, brushing and quality selection, the sisal gets baled and sold.

The Hadithi team buys the bales of sisal fibre from the nearby sisal estate, and transports them to Hadithi HQ. The fibre gets split into half kg bundles of two quality varieties, and thereon distributed to the various women groups that use this sisal to weave practical baskets.

The lower grade sisal can be used for the basket’s upward strands (hidden on the inside of the piece), the higher grade will make the visible twine of a practical basket.