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On the trail of the lace-bark tree of Jamaica

Emily Brennan, Lori-Ann Harris
26 May 2010
Blog team: 
The lace-bark tree is the source of a beautiful natural lace, and was a vital part of Jamaican culture for 400 years. Inspired by lace-bark artefacts at Kew, Emily Brennan and Lori-Ann Harris search out the tree and its users in the Jamaican countryside.

Emily: I came across lace-bark for the first time in 2008 and since then it has become more and more a part of my life. The journey started when I conserved a Jamaican lace-bark bonnet for Kew’s Economic Botany Collection as part of my studies at Camberwell College of Arts. When conserving an object it is vital to understand its story. I found scattered references to lace-bark in books from the time of Sir Hans Sloane in the late 17th century to the 1950s, and Kew has an excellent collection of lace-bark objects dating between 1850 and 1950. After 1950 the use of lace-bark seems to have declined, or stopped altogether. It seemed that the only way to find out more about this intriguing and mysterious fibre was to go to its country of origin.

The Jamaican lace-bark bonnet from the Economic Botany Collection that I conserved (seen after treatment)

I felt that it was important to carry out the project in collaboration with Jamaican researchers. Lace-bark seemed to contain an amalgamation of British and African cultural influences. Out of these influences, there has bloomed something distinctly Jamaican.  I was very lucky to find Lori-Ann Harris, Assistant Botanist at the Institute of Jamaica, Kingston to work with me on the project; we made a great team and she was vital to its success.

From left to right: Lori-Ann Harris; myself; Tracy Commock, Director of the Natural History Museum of Jamaica, Institute of Jamaica in the garden at the Institute (downtown Kingston, Jamaica).

I received funding from The Pasold Research Fund, the P&L Trust (Llandinam) and the <a data-cke-saved-href="" href="" title="The Stationers" livery="" company'="" class="external-link">Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers who all made the project possible. The guidance and encouragement of Mark Nesbitt at the Economic Botany Collection was also fundamental.

For the first two weeks of the trip things were slow. It became apparent that lace-bark was nowhere near as well known as I had anticipated it to be. We also found that areas where the tree grew were not necessarily areas where lace-bark objects were made. The archives of the national newspaper led us to attempts to revive the craft of lace-bark in the 1980s and gave vital clues as to where to go. It also became clear that there might be issues of sustainability, with the trees noted as becoming scarce.

Lori-Ann: Before this project, I had not heard of or seen the lace-bark tree (Lagetta lagetto). This seemed to be the trend even in areas where the tree was known to grow. This was interesting as many people use other barks in similar ways.

Emily: Despite this we managed to find a family that had harvested lace-bark over three generations until the craft had died out in the 1980s. This was much later than we had expected. This family were invaluable as it seemed that they were the key suppliers of the raw material during an attempted resurgence of the craft. This craft resurgence apparently stopped or failed due to a combination of political upheaval and the devastation caused by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988.

Demonstrating lace-bark processing in the parish of Trelawny, Jamaica

Lori-Ann: It was amazing to feel, touch and see lace-bark first hand. There seemed to be numerous possibilities regarding the use of this plant.

Emily: Memories of the craft in Jamaica were disappearing quickly. We found out key information on the harvesting of the material, surrounding economy, roles associated with various material processes and other history of the craft during the twentieth century. The information found will now be published and kept for future generations, whatever the future of the material may be.

Lori-Ann: In the last days of our research, Emily gave a talk on lace-bark to the Natural History Society of Jamaica. Emily’s presentation was well received and sparked lively debate and numerous questions and suggestions were forthcoming. I am pleased with the renewed interest generated, and I look forward to seeing more research done in the way of reviving sustainable use of this fantastic natural material. Perhaps the craft may be revived, and if so, Lagetta lagetto may have an exciting future here in Jamaica.

-Emily and Lori-Ann-

Emily and Mark will be giving a talk on lace-bark at the Textile Society conference on sustainable textiles in Leicester, 26-28 November 2010.

Further reading:

Pearman, G. and Prendergast, H.D.V. 2000. Items from the lacebark tree Lagetta lagetto (W.Wright) Nash (Thymelaeaceae) from the Caribbean. Economic Botany 54: 4-6. (PDF)


28 October 2010
Thank you for recognising the importance of collaborating with Jamaican researchers and therefore respecting the rich repository of heritage knowledge they could contribute to your research...Hans Sloane had the same assistance but he never documented it...How else would he have been able to gather the knowledge of plants he never knew existed. Would love to read the report that you present at the textile society conference. Wishing you every success. LAMORENA
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3 September 2010
This save from pollution also it recycling is good message to society.
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11 July 2010
A fascinating story. It would be fantastic if Kew's lace bonnet led to a revival of a traditional craft and the sustainability of the tree.
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