From the time she was a little girl growing up in Breakers, Bodden Town, Ventris “Winnie” Powell twisted rope. In Cayman’s not too distant past, rope making was a common occupation and a good skill to master for the islands’ women to bring in needed income.
But what makes her remarkable is that at 91, Ms. Powell is applying that skill today to weave a living for herself.
The spirited senior works on baskets for several hours a day.
“It’s no good sitting down and doing nothing, I feel good and have no pain so I’m doing what I always did – work.” She finds it beneficial for her soul and health.
Accounts of Cayman’s history often note the islanders have a tradition of hardiness and independence of spirit, which sustained them through many difficult years. One of 10 children, Ms. Powell grew up in Breakers, twisting rope with her siblings.
She recalled there were few people and very little to do in Breakers in those days. Some of the older folks, she said, were very miserable and kept their possessions closely guarded.
“Times were hard, it was not like it is today, but thank God I made it,” she said.
In days gone by, Cayman’s national tree, the silver thatch palm, had two primary uses – making rooftops and rope. Women, tasked with taking care of the home and children when the men went to sea, found other uses for the thatch plant, such as making baskets, hats, slippers, brooms and much more.
When the sale of rope dwindled, Ms. Powell made baskets, teaching herself as she went. “I just watched and learned from the people around me,” she said.
“It’s hard work making baskets,” she said, working on several new creations for a customer. “I love to twist rope but today we don’t have much use for it.”
To make baskets, she must wait until a full moon to cut and harvest the green tops of the silver thatch palms, which are then put out to dry.
Ms. Powell said it can take a day to strip the straws for the plaiting. Then she has to plait, trim, sew and sell the baskets. Ms. Powell recalled Breakers had its fair share of skilled thatch plaiters such as Nell Connor, Tooksie Whittaker and Adelaide Powell, who she said could plait and sew a hat before the day was done.
Today business might not be good, but Ms. Powell is thankful for everything that has happened in her life.
Visitors passing through Breakers may drop by Ms. Powell’s to inspect her wares, if they wish. Just look for the little house with the neat sign outside, simply noting, “Baskets for sale.”