If you’re looking for a locally made gift this holiday season – one that incorporates Cayman’s old-time traditions – look no farther than House of Local Craft, owned and operated by Janet Johnson-Minzett.
You will find Johnson-Minzett and her selection of handmade items at the craft market in George Town. Some of her wares include beaded jewelry with freshwater pearls, sterling silver, Caymanite, and conch shells, stuffed dolls and trinkets, dresses and cloth bags, wood objects and housewares, and many basket-weave items made from Cayman’s national tree, the silver thatch palm.
The artist and businesswoman creates most of her items by hand, whether in the form of painting, carving, sewing or basket-weaving. Says her daughter, Tanesha: “She is very talented with her hand and can make just about anything you can imagine.”
Many of Johnson-Minzett’s customers are cruise ship passengers, but she also sells to hotel tourists, regular returning visitors, and of course, locals. “I also get orders occasionally to supply hotels and restaurants with place mats, trays, bread baskets and other stuff,” she says.
Locals often buy her hats to cover up from the sun, and her baskets, which are popular for beach picnics. Other items made from silver thatch include lamps, bowls, trays and place mats.
The tall, slender silver thatch palm tree was an important national resource for early settlers who used the adaptable leaves to make rope, brooms and roofs. Its name derives from its leaves, with the upper side a light green and the underside a silvery tone which catches the light of the moon.
The traditional Cayman custom has been passed down from generation to generation; “laying rope” was a way to make a living for Caymanian women and children while the men were away at sea. Many women walked for miles to collect bundles of thatch (called “tops”). Later, the tops would be stripped, dried and twisted into thin ropes which would be traded overseas or exchanged locally for household goods such as cloth, sugar, flour, soup and kerosene.
Johnson-Minzett makes regular trips by car to the deep woods of East End and North Side to get her silver thatch tops, and then dries them and cuts them into straws before weaving them into her products. For her basket weaving, she incorporates various styles and methods seen throughout the Caribbean, in addition to the Cayman style that was developed long ago.
The Caymanian way
Caymanians had their own special way of working with silver thatch, most commonly using the “notch-plaiting” method of weaving the strips into ribbons. Narrow ribbons were for hats, while wide-strand ribbons were for baskets and mats, and four patterns were commonly used in weaving these ribbons, including an open-work design. Once weaved, ribbons were sewn together. It is this ribbon style of thatch work that can still be seen today in craft shops and at heritage fairs, including at House of Local Craft.
A dying art
“Basket weaving is a dying art, and the younger generation is not interested, mostly because it takes a lot of time and effort, and there is not much money to be made from it,” says Johnson-Minzett, adding, “You really have to have a passion and love for it to do it. This is what I make my living from.”
Born and raised in Jamaica, Johnson-Minzett learned many of her skills from her mother as a young girl. She moved to Cayman in 1990 at age 22 and operated a craft shop in the East End with her sister until 1996, before moving to Bodden Town until 2010. She taught basket weaving to students at Bodden Town Primary School, as well as at other primary schools in the districts. She has also been a national prize winner at the annual Cayman Agriculture and Art show.
Visit House of Local Craft and Ms. Johnson-Minzett at the George Town craft market Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m., or visit silverthatchaccessories.com or call 917-7847.