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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands

Coconut Leaf Plaiting

Coconut Leaf Plaiting

Floor mats, carrying and roof sheets, wall screens, and baskets are plaited from coconut leaves with the leaflets left attached to the midribs or split sections of them. The process is exactly the same as that described in detail by Hiroa (28) for Samoa. The midrib is easily split and trimmed, each half making a base with the obliquely directed leaflets fixed in parallel and evenly-spaced wefts. Alternate leaflets are turned on this base at right angles across the other leaflets to form the second set of wefts, or two halves of a leaf are superimposed with the midribs parallel but with the leaflets crossing.

In plaiting a section taken from the left side of the leaf, with one set of leaflets naturally directed obliquely to the right forming sinistral wefts, and one set turned to the left as dextral wefts, the worker sits with the midrib before her as a commencement edge and, beginning at the left, interlaces several leaflets to form a working section. The plaiting is conducted from left to right. In plaiting the flat sheets, the projecting sinistral wefts on the left side are turned to form new dextral wefts, and the projecting dextral wefts on the right side are turned to form new sinistral wefts for the next working section above. In making baskets, these wefts are left projecting and are later plaited together to form the sides. Working sections are added until all but the ends of the leaflets have been included in the plaiting. The finishing edge of the wall screen page 136 and sheets made of a single section of leaf are completed by braiding these ends. Carrying and roof sheets are made of two sections of coconut leaf joined at the finishing edges by a double course of braiding, one half of the wefts braided to the left and the remaining half braided to the right. Baskets are similarly closed by a double course of braiding.

The joined section of carrying and roof sheets, made from the right side of the leaf, is plaited from right to left as the leaflets are naturally directed to the left.

Food Dish

The only serving dish, except the coconut-shell cup, is a coconut-leaf shallow bowl or platter which is used once and thrown away. It is made only for serving food at feasts and for guests. Ordinarily food is served on leaves placed on small fala pandanus mats. The serving dish is made in two forms, plaited and unplaited. The unplaited dish is made from a short section of coconut leaf midrib with 10 or 12 leaflets attached. The leaflets are divided into two bunches and knotted together. The end leaflets are pulled tightly, bending the midrib to make a curved end and leaving the middle leaflets slightly loose. The dish is turned out with the under surface of the leaflets up and with the loose middle leaflets sagging, making a shallow concavity in which the food is set.

The plaited dish is composed of two short sections of split midrib and attached leaflets taken from the left and right sides of the leaf. The midrib splits are placed end to end with the under surface of the leaflets uppermost, one set crossing the other. They are plaited together in check pattern and the projecting ends of each set knotted separately.


The two types of basket made in Tokelau differ in use and details of manufacture. The common basket is quickly made from green coconut leaves when needed and cast away as soon as it has served its purpose. It is made primarily for transporting food and copra. The second type is a permanent basket of closely-woven, dried coconut leaf for household use.

The temporary basket (kato) is plaited in check pattern from the leaflets of a single strip of midrib which is cut off long enough to make the rim of the basket. The end leaflets are left free for the joining of the two ends, the second leaflet at one end is left in its natural position, and the third leaflet is crossed at right angles to form the first weft opposite to that established by the second leaflet. The plaiting is commenced with this pair and continued, without turning the leaflets at the edges, until only a few inches at the ends of the leaflets at the plaiting edge remain free. These ends are turned back at right angles and pushed under the first cross wefts they overlie to secure the plaiting. The two ends of the midrib are brought together and joined by slightly overlapping each other. They are so placed that the wefts of one side are parallel with those of the same series on the other side; the free leaflet at the end of the plaiting, placed between the interval of the first and second leaflets, is carried through and pulled firmly around the join of the midrib ends and carried back again as a weft in the opposite direction to its natural position. The basket is turned up on its rim to finish the plaiting. The join is toward the worker. The first leaflet left free now makes a pair with page 137 the last leaflet, which was bound around the join and carried as weft opposite to its natural direction. The plaiting of the projecting wefts of each edge is now completed.

The bottom of the basket is made by braiding the plaiting edge. The basket is placed with the plaiting edge up and the join of the rim away from the worker. The plaiting edge forms two sides to be closed, as in the closing of the carrying sheet; but the extended wefts of these two edges now run in the same direction, for they are plaited from one section of midrib instead of two opposing sections from different sides of the leaf. The tucked-in wefts on the left side are pulled out, and cross the extended wefts on the right to form the elements for the first course of the braid. This is commenced at the far end at the point where the plaiting was joined on the side. The braiding is continued a few turns beyond the near end. The basket is reversed, and the free ends of the first braid are brought over and included with the braiding of the remaining two sets of projecting wefts.

A few people make a second type of this open leaflet basket, which varies in the braiding of the bottom. The plaiting of this basket was taught by Samoans and the method is described by Hiroa (28, p. 194), who states that it is a technique introduced from Niue Island.

Only one type of permanent household basket was seen at Atafu (pl. 8, A). This was very strong and tightly plaited in twill pattern with double weft sections like the Samoan chief's basket (28). Before plaiting, the coconut leaf material is thoroughly dried in the sun. The leaflets are doubled lengthwise and trimmed along their outer margins, making reenforced wefts. Two sections of leaflets are used in each set of wefts to avoid open plaiting from the narrowed wefts. The sets are taken from opposite sides of the leaf. One section is overlaid on the other, placing the leaflets of the upper section opposite the intervals of the lower strip and intertwining the two. The two sets of wefts are placed in position for plaiting by joining the sinistral set over the dextral set in a horizontal row of check strokes. The intertwined strips are laid with the midribs side by side and directed away from the worker. The leaflets on the left side point away from the worker and have the under surfaces facing down; the leaflets on the right side point toward the worker and have the under surfaces facing up. The right-hand leaflets are brought over the midrib and placed under and across the opposite left-hand leaflets. The piece is then moved with the midribs or commencement edge before the worker. The left-hand leaflets become the dextral wefts, and the right-hand wefts, which were carried over the midribs, become the sinistral wefts with the lower surface facing down like the dextral wefts. The plaiting in two-, three-, four-, or five-twill pattern is commenced at the left, the first two dextral wefts being dropped to make the join of the rim. The sinistral and dextral wefts are left projecting at the left and right edges for joining the sides of the basket, as the plaiting is worked toward the ends of the leaflets. In making the join, the midrib splits are first shaped and bent with the hands to make the ends come easily together to form the rim. The ends are joined by interlacing the free wefts left at each end, and the sides are completed by plaiting together the crossing wefts of the edges. The bottom is closed by double-course braiding and knotted at the tips, forming tails which are pushed through the ends of the bottom and tied together inside.


Fans are made in two distinct shapes; one leaf-shaped and one broadly oval with a straight lower edge. The leaf-shaped fan has slightly rounded sides which taper to single or triple points (pl. 8, B).

The construction of the fan is a rather simple and ingenious plaiting of wickerwork upon a rigid, elementary foundation whose elements radiate from the handle. The handle is composed of a bunch of coconut leaflet midribs which are bent and crossed over one another at one end and split to spread into fan-shape. The split midribs are held in this page 138 position by twining two narrow strips of coconut leaflet across them in a semicircle about 1 inch from their base. They are then wrapped in a twilled plaiting of bleached pandanus strips about one fourth inch wide.

Across the radiating splits, narrow, double strips of coconut leaflet are laid alternately on one side and the other in rows of converging arcs. These are bound in place with fine leaflet strips which are plaited parallel to and alternate with the splits of the radiating foundation. As the fan is constructed, the gaps between the elements of the foundation are filled in with plaiting of separate pieces of leaflet midrib. The semicircular double strips thus form the rigid warp, and the strips plaited across them form the weft in the wickerwork technique. The splits of the midribs leading from the handle make a rigid foundation to keep the fan stiff but do not form a functional part of the plaiting.

The border is finished by carrying the plaiting weft around the last warp and doubling the ends under a few wefts in the same manner as the finishing edge of a mat. If the fan is to be trimmed with feathers, the splits of the foundation are left extending beyond the final warp. The feather border hides the rough edge of the foundation. Some borders of fans are decorated with white feathers of the frigate bird (tavaki) or brown chicken feathers. A row of feathers is sewed at the edge of each face of the fan, with the convex side of the feathers back to back and the tips pointing outward. The tips are clipped off to make an even edge. Modern fans are further ornamented by overlaid strips of coconut leaf colored with imported dyes.