Using Objects to Convey Meaning and Break Silences: An Interview with Material Culture Expert Steeve Buckridge

By Jacqueline Bishop Sunday, April 30th, 2017 Categories: Features, Interview, Updates

Jacqueline Bishop shares an interview with Dr. Steeve Buckridge about his two publications ‘The Language of Dress, Resistance and Accommodation in Jamaica, 1760 -1890′ and ‘African Lace-Bark in the Caribbean: The Construction of Race, Class and Gender’. These texts investigate the roles of material objects – namely fabrics and styles of dress – as critical artifacts and practices within Caribbean history, as well as their importance in contemporary society and discussions around cultural preservation.

Dr. Buckridge has been the Director of Area Studies at Grand Valley State University, Michigan since 2011. He is also an Associate Professor of African and Caribbean History, and Associate Faculty in African and African American Studies. His research interest takes him to various places in Africa and the Caribbean where he has been studying African customs in dress, textiles, and weaving techniques. He has published and presented papers on dress customs among Caribbean Slaves. He is a recipient of the Ford Foundation fellowship and was based at the University of the West Indies as a Ford fellow.

Image sourced from the

Image sourced from the Grand Valley State University website.

Jacqueline Bishop: Steeve, I want to start this interview by spending some time on an earlier work of yours, ‘The Language of Dress, Resistance and Accommodation in Jamaica, 1760 -1890′ which I see as a direct predecessor to your publication ‘African Lace-Bark in the Caribbean: The Construction of Race, Class and Gender’. In ‘The Language of Dress’ you maintain that “Objects are parallel to written history;” yet, you go on to show how objects, including clothing, are not treated as such. Can you explain the seeming reluctance to engage objects as historical documents, and do you believe that this reluctance might be changing?

Steeve Buckridge: First, let me thank you for this opportunity to share aspects of my research with your readers and for your interest in my work. Now to your question, I think that the reluctance to engage objects in this regard has to do with several factors.

First, many of us were trained to think that written texts are essential to understanding people’s lives. However, what about those people who had no writing? Or left no written texts? How do we begin to understand their lives? Written history is just one way of learning about individuals and societies. In fact, the material objects used by a particular culture or society can tell us a lot about the society and the people who used that particular object. This is the premise of Material Culture Studies – a new discipline in the academy – an object based branch of cultural history that is different from archaeology. Material culture enables us to explore new methods of interpretations by analyzing objects or artifacts. Moreover, the analysis of objects along with written sources helps to broaden our understanding of historical interpretations. Although this discipline has gained momentum in the US and Europe over the last two decades, it is still relatively new in some regions and areas of the academy while some scholars are still learning and exploring this new concept.

Another factor for this reluctance is that objects have been seen as merely insignificant, as too ephemeral, or too every day to warrant attention. Objects such as dress or fashion for a long time were considered a mere trivial whim rather than an important feature in our lives beyond keeping us warm and protecting us from the natural elements. Some historians have regarded objects like clothing as peripheral to historical enquiry. Consequently, the everyday uses and the impact of “meaningful objects” in our lives have been often ignored, dismissed or overlooked. Think for a moment about the clothing objects that have shaped and molded us – it might be a favorite T-shirt, a wedding gown or a child’s baptismal garment, a cherished gift or family heirloom like a piece of jewelry. Such objects often become important to us because they mean something and they reveal something about us as individuals.

This is changing as more and more Caribbean scholars engage in Material culture studies. For example, major strides have been made in the analysis of contemporary objects, especially in popular culture. A few scholars have produced some exciting scholarship on carnival costume, religious attire, and dance hall, street style and Rasta dress within the context of cultural and literary studies. Other scholars have begun to look at furniture, pottery and even architecture among other things as a means of understanding social relationships and the people who created and used these objects. Despite this, more research is needed, especially on the material culture of enslaved people in the Caribbean.

'The Language of Dress, Resistance and accommodation in Jamaica, 1760 -1890' by Dr. Steeve Buckridge.

‘The Language of Dress, Resistance and Accommodation in Jamaica, 1760 -1890′ by Dr. Steeve Buckridge.

JB: In ‘The Language of Dress’ and in your following publication as well, you make the case that material objects are one of the best ways of “giving voice to the voiceless” and in filling in the “wordless experience” of mainly oppressed people. How can objects such as dress do that?

SB: Let me share a story with you. Some years ago when I was living and teaching in South Africa, I accompanied a friend who was a social worker into one of the black townships on the outskirts of Durban to meet a group of African women at the local community center. Many of the women were poor, unemployed mothers from patriarchal cultures who came to learn needlework skills and to make beaded craft items for the local tourist market. At the time, South Africa was in the midst of the AIDS pandemic and the social workers had hoped to ‘talk’ with the women about safe-sex and the challenges of living with HIV and AIDS. However, the African women refused to engage in any conversation about sex. In many African cultures, it is taboo to discuss intimate marital relations, much less talk about sex in public. At the end of the six week programme the women exhibited their needlework, and what was revealed in their work was overwhelming. Each woman had used her needlework to tell “herstory” of how she was raped – in several cases by their husbands – and consequently contracted HIV. It was in their needlework that their voices were heard and their lives were revealed. The women’s needlework became meaningful objects that conveyed a message and simultaneously played a key role in providing both “a place” in society and a “voice” for those who were silenced, ignored or oppressed. I am sure we can all think of situations that are analogous to this scenario in South Africa in which objects were used to convey a meaning. I often share with my students that there are many ways of reading people’s lives, and sometimes we must learn to ‘read’ the silence.

Dress as a material object also has meaning; it is a visual language that conveys a message about the wearer to the observer. I should explain that the term dress includes many forms of adornment, hairstyles, tattoos, pierced ears, as well as garments, jewelry, accessories and other types of items added to the body. There are many examples of how dress gave a “voice” to the oppressed or the colonized. During slavery in Jamaica for instance, slaves had much control over their clothing, but the way one dressed within the colonial state was constantly scrutinized. As a result, enslaved people used their dress and body modifications to symbolically and covertly resist, to make satirical and politically subversive or revolutionary statements against the oppressor or colonial power. This was evident in several ways. For example, dress was used as disguise to evade capture or to signal anger and discontent, as in the case of the rebel leaders in 1831 who donned red tunics as an act of war and a uniform of resistance. In some situations, slaves created coded messages in their dress. These messages conveyed subversive texts to other members of the enslaved population and were often unrecognizable by slave owners or went undetected by the colonial authorities. Furthermore, dress and the body became objects for deliberate manipulation, part of “object events,” in an effort to change the power dynamics. This also happened in contemporary society. Coco Chanel’s short skirt and the popularity of the bobbed haircut of the 1920s, were visual analogues that afforded women greater physical mobility, freedom, and at the same time, a rejection of the patriarchal norms that had confined them for centuries. In India, Mohandas Gandhi’s loincloth and the mobilization of the spinning wheel became a symbol of colonial resistance against the British. Nor can we forget the role of poor Chilean women who adapted their traditional needlework to produce arpilleras, a type of appliqué and patchwork in the resistance movement after the 1973 coup. The women often depicted the ruling junta as vultures among doves. These are just a few examples of how dress as an object can be used to make a subversive statement, particularly in the lives of women who were dominated, silenced, and marginalized.

JB: One of the most interesting revelations for me in reading your first book is the large numbers of natural dyes and fibre products that at one time had been made in Jamaica, pioneered by enslaved individuals. Can you take the time to list some of the natural products that were used to make dyes and fabrics, and engage the question of what happened to what at one time had been a burgeoning textile industry in Jamaica?


Dyes:                                            Scientific Name:

Scarlet seed                                   Laetia thamnia L. [Native]
Anatto                                           Bixa orellana L. [Introduced]
Prickly pear                                   Opuntia dillenii (Ker Gawl.) Haw. [Native]
Logwood                                        Haematoxylum campechianum L. [Introduced]
Morinda root or Yaw-weed               Morinda sp. (probably Morinda royoc L. [Native])
Fustic tree                                     Maclura tinctoria (L.) D. Don. ex Steud subsp. tinctoria [Native]
Prickly yellow pear                         Zanthoxylum martinicense (Lam.) DC. [Native]
Indigo berry                                  Randia aculeata L. var. aculeata [Native]
Shrubby goat-rue                          (Scientific name unidentifiable)
Bastard saffron                             (Scientific name unidentifiable)
Lignum vitae leaves                       Guaiacum officinale L. [Native]
Vine sorrel                                    Cissus trifoliata (L.) L. [Native]

Plant fibres for textiles and clothing:

Cotton wood                                  (Scientific name unidentifiable)
Laghetto bark                                Lagetta lagetto (Sw.) Nash [Native]
Down-tree-down                            Ochroma pyramidale (Cav. ex Lam.) Urb. [Native]
Bon-ace bark                                 (Scientific name unidentifiable)
Carotoe leaf                                  Agave morrisii Baker [Native]
Mountain Cabbage                         Roystonea altissima (Mill.) H. E. Moore [Endemic]

First of all, Jamaica has a long history of producing dye pigments and textiles. The indigenous people of the region produced dyes to paint their bodies and colour their hand woven cotton and fabrics made from plant or natural fibres. Some information about local dyes was passed on to Africans, who also brought their knowledge of plants with them to the region. In some cases, new plants with dye properties were introduced. The Eighteenth century historian, Edward Long, provides an extensive list of these dye and textiles sources, but unfortunately not much is known about these early industries. Dye production was an auxiliary cottage industry that was vital to the local textile market. During slavery, enslaved people used these dyes to colour fabrics and clothing, and several local Europeans utilized natural dyes in industry. It should be noted that homemade dyes were difficult to produce and before the availability of dye books in the nineteenth century, colouring was a very important cottage industry. Dye pigments were obtained from roots, leaves, berries, nuts and barks and the recipe for making dyes were sometimes carefully guarded or exchanged among colonized people.

Enslaved people, who had a need for additional clothing beyond the meagre rations they received from their enslavers, resorted to natural fibres and bark cloth to make sophisticated and beautiful outfits. The textile and dye industries came to a gradual end in the post-Emancipation period as a large retail and commercial sector developed that imported mass quantities of manufactured textiles. Many freed people were lured by the thought of wearing European clothing and textiles that were denied them during slavery, but were now readily available, accessible, and affordable. Some dye production continued after slavery. Logwood, for instance, became important for the dye industry in the mid-nineteenth century, but eventually was impacted by excessive cutting of trees and competition from the development of synthetic dye industries. By the end of the nineteenth century, the decreasing demand for natural dyes offered little reason to expand. Other crops such as ginger and pimento became more lucrative after emancipation. Anatto (Annatto) dye production continued, but in small quantities.

The knowledge of many natural dyes and plant fibres in Jamaica has been lost. After slavery, many freed people abandoned these old customs and skills as they were viewed as ‘old fashioned’ and ‘backward’. It is believed that Jamaica had as many as 50 plant fibres obtained from plants indigenous to Jamaica. During the Victorian era, the colonial government focused attention on expanding colonial agriculture, thus renewed interest developed in economic plants for fibre production to be used in industry. Botanical gardens in Jamaica collaborated with Kew Gardens in London to import and distribute economic plants across the island. Colonial authorities also conducted experiments on vegetable fibres, including china grass, pine-apple, bamboo, lace-bark and sisal hemp. Many of these plant and leaf fibres were exhibited at industrial fairs and expositions around the world. Despite this, there was concern about the sustainability of several natural fibres and the ability to mass produce them for industry. Gradually, the production of some fibres declined due to the scarcity of the plant as in the case of lace-bark, and many fibres were adapted for ornamental purposes, craft work, souvenirs and novelties or folk arts for an emerging tourist market. The local authorities soon shifted focus to cotton and cotton textile production.

JB: You make a point of explaining in ‘The Language of Dress’ that quilt-making was not a tradition nurtured in Jamaican society, but for me, patchwork making most definitely is; yet that is a tradition overlooked so far in both your books. Why do you think patchwork making does not get the scholarly treatment that say quilt-making does?

SB: ‘The Language of Dress’ is not an exhaustive text as I have argued before, and I think your point reaffirms this notion. I did look into this issue, as I was curious about quilting in Jamaica. In fact, the topic of quilting will be discussed in a later project. Before I proceed, it is important to define quilting and patchwork. Although the two are often associated, they are not the same. Broadly speaking, quilting usually means two layers or pieces of fabric that are used to sandwich a thick interlining or pad and stitched together, while patchwork involves sewing together pieces of fabric into larger designs. Quilting and patchwork have been practiced in many cultures over centuries and in Europe quilting dates back to the Middle-Ages. In the United States, quilts have been an artistic expression of many women for the past two hundred years and became increasingly popular in the early nineteenth century. Today, quilts are no longer stored in trunks and cupboards, but are proudly displayed in homes and in museums. Large numbers of quilts made by enslaved and free women were cherished and passed down for generations in families. This is not the case for many Jamaicans. During slavery, a few European women in Jamaica practiced quilting, but the evidence of Jamaican enslaved people making quilts and patchwork designs for their everyday wear and functional use in the home is scarce. Some patchwork, however, was used for costumes in Johnkonu such as the character ‘Pitchy Patchy’.

My hypotheses is that patchwork and quilting designs became more wide spread among some women during the post-Emancipation period when colonial authorities emphasized missionizing and promoted Victorian ideals in dressmaking and needlework skills among freed black women. During slavery, imported material was limited and expensive, thus fabrics were used, reused and salvaged. After slavery, widespread expansion of trade presented families with many economic and social opportunities. Expanded trade included a great deal of manufactured textiles for fine clothing and needlework activities. Even so, the textile trade was impacted by the American Civil war and that led to other challenges. Despite this, quilting and patchwork never gained the same historical and cultural significance in Jamaica as in the United States.

In contemporary Jamaica, patchwork and quilting has been nurtured. I can remember as a child, women visiting my Mom’s sewing room to collect her ‘scraps’ of left over fabrics to make patchwork cushion covers, pillow cases and quilted sheets. School children in craft and sewing classes made patchwork floor mats and rugs with a multitude of colourful strips of cloth. Of course, today quilting and patchwork are more popular in several areas of the Americas, thanks to the role of print and social media, as well as TV shows on quilting that have promoted this art form, thus giving rise to a new generation of quilt makers including men.

I think that patch work and quilt making were both overlooked. Only recently are quilts being reappraised by historians and art critics, but they have not caught up to patchwork designs. Caribbean historiography is certainly behind in this regard. There is also the matter of what I said earlier, that some scholars think such objects are peripheral to historical enquiry. I do have hope that this will change over time.

JB: Cross-dressing, it turns out, has a longer and more sustained history in Jamaica, than maybe many people realize. Can you take the time to explain the fascinating case that you discuss of a slave named Hurlock and the history of cross dressing in Jamaican slave society?

SB: Yes, this is true. Cross-dressing has a long history in Jamaica. During slavery, some runaway slaves cross-dressed so they could be unrecognizable and thus escape capture and secure their freedom. In some situations, men dressed as women and visa-versa. This also happened in several slave societies throughout the Americas. Cross-dressing also existed in slave carnival and Jonkunnu.

The story of the slave Hurlock is a fascinating one, but sadly very few people are familiar with his bravery and his resistance efforts during the 1831 rebellion. Hurlock was one of the rebel leaders who disguised himself as a woman on numerous occasions and was able to move freely through the streets without being detected or caught. He also had several accomplices who did the same, but he seemed to have been ‘very good’ at this particular disguise. Dressed as a woman, he visited the soldiers’ garrison where he pretended to be a water carrier and cigar seller and amused the soldiers. By flirting and entertaining the soldiers, Hurlock was able to learn the plans and strengths of the militia detachment sent to crush the slave rebellion. The evidence suggests the soldiers had no clue they were flirting with a man!

The result of Hurlock’s efforts was that the rebels were able to prepare and position themselves strategically. As a result, they defeated some of the militia before they could fire on the slaves. Hurlock’s role as a cross-dresser was successful, because he effectively deceived the colonial authorities and at the same time saved the lives of many slaves who could have been killed.

JB: Can you also discuss who the enslaved woman Cubah was and the role that dress played in the rebellion she led on the island?

SB: The story of Cubah is an interesting case of how dress was used as resistance in Jamaica. In 1760, a major rebellion was planned for the eastern part of Jamaica. The rebellion was to have involved most of the island’s Coromante slaves. Chief among the rebellion organizers was the enslaved woman, Cubah. Amazingly, Cubah had a large following of slaves who crowned her Queen of Kingston and treated her as a queen. It is reported that she sat in state under a canopy, with a short robe on her shoulders, and a crown on her head. At the time of the plot, queen Cubah carried a wooden sword with a red feather stuck to the handle – perhaps as a symbol of freedom – and she performed duties similar to those of a West African Queen mother. She was ordered by the colonial authorities to stop the ‘charade’, but she refused. Consequently, Cubah was captured and shipped off the island, but managed to convince the ship’s captain to put her ashore again on the leeward part of Jamaica. She remained there for a while, but eventually was re-arrested and executed. Cubah was dismissed and ridiculed by whites as a sort of carnivalesque caricature, but to her enslaved followers she represented hope and unity. Her status as queen among the enslaved population suggests that she had created an African kingdom under the jurisdiction of an African style aristocracy. What is most telling is her regal dress that conveyed her identity as an authoritative among her followers, and signalled her rejection of the colonial order and her resistance to European domination.

JB: The Madras cloth occupies a central role in the national dress of the island of Jamaica and several other Caribbean islands as well. Where does the Madras cloth originate, and why do you believe it occupies such a central role in Jamaican identity despite attempts to replace it?

SB: Madras is a yarn-dyed plaid in red, blue and white colours without borders. The fabric was originally made in Madras and other parts of South India. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to trade this Indian fabric for more than 400 years and it became popular on several continents and by different names. It is called “Real Madras handkerchief” in India; “Indian Madras” in the USA and Britain; and in West Africa it is called George among the Igbo, and Injiri among the Kalabari of Nigeria, meaning “Real India” in their language. British textile manufacturers eventually copied this fabric and mass-produced several cheaper grades of Madras for the colonial markets. Plaid was very fashionable during the Victorian era due to the royal family’s Scottish heritage. Madras was imported into the Caribbean and other parts of the empire. There is no evidence to suggest that this fabric was popular among slaves in Jamaica; however, this is quite possible since several sources refer to the importation of Indian cottons. However, after slavery was abolished, Madras was widely used in Jamaica among freed women, especially those of the labouring and peasant classes. In the nineteenth century, striped or checked muslin also named Madras appeared. In the Caribbean, the term Madras cloth was merged with the term bandana, and was used by Jamaican women primarily as a form of tie-head or head wrap. Why such a central role in Jamaican identity? I think you have touched on the answer. Madras was ‘intertwined’ with the daily life experiences of Jamaican (and other Caribbean) women to the point where some would argue that Madras was synonymous with women! Hence, it cannot be denied, dismissed or replaced. I think we should celebrate it and embrace it.


Depiction of the Surinamese ‘Watch me op de hoek’ head wrap.

JB: The stories that you tell of the various types of head wraps in your book is absorbing. Can you share with us some of your drawings on the various head wraps and their many meanings?

SB: Head wraps are worn in many cultures around the world by both men and women. The styles are often culturally defined, and they reflected the creativity and personal taste of the wearer. The head wrap or tie-head as we say in the Caribbean is an African custom transplanted wholesale to the region. During slavery (and even today), many women wore it to hide and protect or prevent injuries to the head, as well as keep any infestations of lice and other scalp diseases in check and under cover. It was also an expedient capacity as an article of clothing, which could be used to cover the hair quickly when there was not enough time to make it presentable. The head wrap protected newly styled hair, and for some women, a head wrap, when tied tightly on the head, cured ‘pressure’ in the head or headaches. In addition, the head wrap was a major necessity, because it offered protection when carrying loads on the head. For some women it was a symbol of beauty and elegance, for others an expression of their faith or religion. In addition, in some Caribbean cultures as in several African societies, head wraps were diverse, colourful and even ornate. Some had coded messages or conveyed a meaning to the observer. In the French West Indies, for instance, the style of a head wrap indicated whether a woman was available and single; it could also mean that she was engaged but might change her mind; or that she might be unfaithful if she liked you well enough! These head wraps were so popular that as late as the twentieth century, male tourists to these regions were warned not to get their signals crossed or mixed up.

Depiction of the Surinamese ‘Feda let them talk’ head wrap.

Depiction of the Surinamese ‘Feda let them talk’ head wrap.

In Suriname as well, head wraps during slavery were beautiful, ornate and diverse. They often consisted of several different fabrics of bright colours tied together. Each style had a specific name and meaning. Some of these meanings were also humorous. For example, the head wrap called ‘Watch me op de hoek’ was worn on special occasions such as the woman’s birthday. This head wrap was tied to expose short loose folds of the scarf at an angle representing a phallic symbol. When a woman wore this head wrap it meant that she was going to meet her lover at the corner! The head wrap called ‘Feda let them talk’ consisted of wrapping the head closely with a scarf in a manner so as to leave three corners of the scarf loose and sticking out. Each corner represented the human tongue, and all three tongues together meant gossiping. When this was worn, the woman sent a clear message to her admirers and rivals that they can ‘gossip about her as much as they want she does not care’. Some of these head wraps can be seen today at festivals and national festivities among older women in Suriname. In Jamaica, the evidence of coded head wraps as in Suriname and French islands is rather scarce. However, during the post slavery period coded head wraps became more common, especially among women traders in the market setting. The style called the ‘cocks tail’ head wrap, in which fabric is tied to the back of the head and excess fabric bunched or shaped like a rooster’s tail, signalled the importance and rank of the woman among the market traders. The height of the ‘cock’s tail’ determined the woman’s rank and importance in the market setting.

JB: You make the argument that contemporary Jamaican street style is “a symbol of the contemporary dandy” and that dancehall clothing is merely a re-articulation of Jonkunnu performances. You also maintain that there are significant African retentions in dancehall costuming and in Rastafarian dress. Firstly, can you explain how street style and dancehall clothing are derivations of earlier costuming styles and traditions? Secondly, can you explain the origin of the term Jonkunnu? And finally, can you point out some of the African retentions to be found in dancehall and Rastafarian dress?

SB: What I also wanted to show in the book is that although street style and dance hall dress are contemporary features, there is a common thread that runs through these dress customs going back to slavery. On some level these dress styles convey an individual’s personal taste, creativity and the desire to have fun. However, these styles also represent a sort of politicization of dress as a means of achieving some legitimacy and power. This was also seen in early costuming and even in Jonkonnu, where slaves used their dress and body modifications as a mask to make subversive and satirical statements about their identities in relations to the elite and dominant power.

Isaac Mendes Belisario – Koo-Koo, or Actor Boy (From Sketches of Character, 1837-38).

Isaac Mendes Belisario – Koo-Koo, or Actor Boy (From Sketches of Character, 1837-38).

Jonkonnu (variations in spelling) has its roots in West Africa. Among the Mende, Igbo and the Yoruba, masks were used in religious festivals and initiation rites. Yoruba ritual masks were more elaborate in design and included human features frequently combined with animals, snakes or geometrical forms. In Ghana among the Fante people, masquerading had satirical content, which critiqued the colonial regime. Moreover, slave carnivals were not limited to Jamaica, but existed throughout much of the Caribbean in forms like the Bahamian Jungkanos, from Belize in the southwest to Bermuda, and North Carolina in the north. In some places of the Caribbean, these festivities were known as Gombay, since much of the dancing was done to the drumming of the ‘Gombay’- a drum made of animal skin. These masquerades had a long and complicated history. However, the origin of the name Jonkonnu is unclear. Some early scholars have attributed this celebration among the slave population to the memory of John Conney, a celebrated cabocero at Tres Puntas in Axim, on the Guinea coast of West Africa in the early eighteenth century. Enslaved Africans who arrived from the Gold Coast region retained stories of this celebrated African merchant. Despite this, the phonetic transformation of the name John Conney to variations such as John Connu or Jonkonnu is still a topic of debate. Richard Allsopp suggests that Jonkonnu is more related to the Yoruba word Jonkoliko, which means an ‘elevated figure for fun or disgrace.’ This is quite possible, since many of the Jonkonnu masks used in Jamaica are similar to those in the Yoruba annual Egungun masquerade.

Dancehall with its many body modifications, fancy dress with bright colours, rhythmic patterns, bold jewelry and bright beads are reminiscent of Jonkonnu and African masking. Meanwhile, Rastafarian dress incorporates the major symbols and colours of Imperial Ethiopia that have been nurtured and adapted by its members as resistance to European hegemony and their rejection of white aesthetics in beauty. The bright colours of black, red, green and gold are a constant reminder of Jamaicans’ cultural link to Africa.

African Bark Lace

‘African Lace-Bark in the Caribbean: The Construction of Race, Class and Gender’ by Dr. Steeve Buckridge.

JB: Now, let’s turn our attention to your other bookfocused largely on lace-bark production in the Caribbean, particularly in Jamaica. Can you start by explaining to our readers what lace-bark is, how it is made, what time period it was made on the island, and who were the main producers of lace-bark?

SB: Lace-bark is a form of bark-cloth and a natural lace obtained from the Lagetta lagetto’s tree bark. There are several common names for the tree in Jamaica such as ‘white bark’, ‘alligator bark’, and ‘sweet scented spurge’, among others. The lagetto tree was found only in Cuba, Jamaica and Haiti, but was most prevalent in Jamaica where it grew on wet limestone rocks in the Cockpit country. The tree bark was cut, soaked, and the thin plant fibres between the outer and inner core of the bark were then pulled and teased out or disentangled with the fingers. The fibres were rolled into large puffballs, dried and then stretched in the sun to be naturally bleached white. The end result resembled lace so much so you could not tell the difference between lace-bark and manufactured lace. Lace-bark was used as a substitute for manufactured lace and linen. It was durable, washable, and could be dyed. Enslaved and Maroon women in Jamaica produced lace-bark for local markets. The lace-bark material was used to make clothes for daily attire, household decorative and functional items as well as industrial ropes. Both men and women used it as mourning linen. The bark of the tree had medicinal properties and it was used to make whips for driving animals and beating slaves. The lace-bark industry was vibrant in Jamaica from the seventeenth century onwards and lasted in Jamaica until the early twentieth century. The industry eventually died, primarily due to overuse and the scarcity of the trees.

Side view of lace-bark.

Side view of lace-bark.

Lace-bark with fibres.

Lace-bark with fibres.

JB: Why is it important to you – as a scholar of the Caribbean and clothing and fabric – to dedicate an entire volume to lace-bark production in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean?

SB: As a scholar, it is essential to let the public know more about this key aspect of Jamaican history that brought the country much fame and prestige for its natural lace. The volume is an ideal way to highlight black women’s economic contribution to their society; sadly, most Jamaicans, as in Cuba and Haiti, have never heard of lace-bark. It is vital to put lace-bark in the history books and teach it in schools – this entire volume is one step in that direction. The volume will bring awareness to this major industry that was an integral part of our culture and history. In fact, lace-bark is part of our identity!

Furthermore, the volume is a significant way to celebrate and acknowledge some of the artistic achievements of Jamaican women who labored to make beautiful and meaningful objects.

JB: Black women, particularly enslaved women, have held pride of place in your scholarship so far. Why this focus on particularly the role that enslaved women have played in textile production and dress in your work?

SB: As a scholar of African and Caribbean history, I was concerned about the gaps in Caribbean Historiography in regards to African influences in clothing and its intersection with race, class and gender. Plantation history has traditionally disregarded economic participation by black women and how their services played a crucial role in urban and rural life. My work builds on earlier scholarship on women in the Caribbean and sheds light on enslaved and freed women’s creativity and economic activity as vibrant traders and producers of exquisite plant material for use in clothing manufacture for members of the enslaved population. Lace-bark was closely associated with African women in Jamaica, but it was also of interest to European adventurers, scientists, tourists, natural historians, industrialists and colonial authorities.

As I have argued in earlier studies, my focus on women rather than men or both is due to several reasons. Women, both slave and free, are the conduits for cultural transmission through their many roles as mothers, teachers and healers, to name just a few. Although globally women have not been responsible for the production of textiles, throughout much of human history and across many cultures, women have been primarily in charge of the maintenance and care of clothing. In colonial Jamaica, large numbers of enslaved and freed women took care of the clothing needs of their families and even their enslavers. Countless women, for instance, have been actively engaged in sewing, mending, knitting, washing and ironing clothes, and numerous women continue these customs today. Many men, on the other hand, have been the recipient of clothes maintained in the home. Nevertheless, there is some discussion of men’s activities in all my work to provide a sociocultural context to comprehend how black women negotiated cultural space to be expressive and feminine, and how gender was socially constructed, understood and lived within the patriarchal colonial society. Moreover, I have a deep admiration for needle workers in Jamaica who have been marginalized, silenced, forgotten or absent from the history books. My goal is to give them a ‘voice’ and celebrate the material objects they created that have enriched our lives in meaningful ways.


Lace-bark artifact.

JB: Can you tell us about some of the substantial lace-bark artifacts from Jamaica that have survived; as well as how and why these artifacts have survived, given that as natural fibre they would have easily degraded? Where can examples of lace-bark work be seen?

SB: I have provided some images of a few lace-bark artifacts to give readers an example of what lace-bark looks like and how this natural fibre was used to make beautiful objects. Understandably, most lace-bark clothing, like all plant materials, are difficult to preserve and would not have survived the ravages of time without proper care and protection from the natural elements and wood-eating pests such as beetles and termites. Archaeological evidence of lace-bark is also rare since buried cloth tends to decay quickly unless it survives under unique conditions. Despite this, several lace-bark artifacts have survived due to tremendous conservation efforts by scientists. Most of these artifacts were donated to various herbaria and Natural history museums around the world, beginning in the late eighteenth century through to the nineteenth century. Some of the artifacts were exhibition pieces from various industrial expositions. Lace-bark artifacts that have survived include many household items such as lamp shades, table mats and runners, fans, doilies, shawls, dresses, hats, bonnets, shoes and even whips and souvenir books and photo albums.

One of the most interesting lace-bark artifacts is a child’s night dress and cap. The garments were fashioned into the “empire style” of the 1820s in lace-bark, reflecting a closely fitted torso, high-waist bodice, short sleeves and a scooped neckline. The dress and cap belonged to the Marchioness Cornwallis, wife of Lord Braybrooke of Audley End, whose father-in-law resided in Jamaica. The simplicity in the dress design reflects a certain degree of elegance and suggests that styles reciprocated between classes, as some Europeans found Jamaican lace-bark appealing.

Today, these artifacts are very fragile and require special care and handling. As a result, many are not on display for public view. A few lace-bark specimens can be seen in the Natural History Museum at the Institute of Jamaica in Kingston. The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago also has several artifacts, but the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London has the largest collection and best preserved lace-bark artifacts from Jamaica.

Lace-bark artifact in the collection of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London.

Lace-bark artifact in the collection of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London.

JB: Finally, is there still lace-bark production in Jamaica? If yes, who are the groups and/or individuals who continue to make lace-bark? If not, what happened to what was arguably a vibrant lace-bark cottage industry and what can possibly be done to resuscitate it?

SB: Lace-bark is no longer produced in Jamaica as the industry has declined. The knowledge of lace-bark has been lost to most except a few people and the tree became scarce due to over use and deforestation. In the 1980s, there was some government interest in reviving lace-bark souvenirs for the tourist market. The government agency Things Jamaica Limited was actively engaged in buying lace-bark for the craft sector, but the toll on the trees was too great and eventually this stopped. A few women who worked in the craft sector with Things Jamaica Limited remember this natural fibre well, but overall lace-bark is now a lost art form, and most Jamaicans have never heard of this Jamaican wonder tree.

The question you raise is an important one that has been put forward many times. Can Lace-bark be revived and is it sustainable? My goal with this book is to spark a conversation about this issue and see what can be done to protect the few remaining trees. I am concerned that the lace-bark trees left in the Cockpit country might now be threatened by mining and further deforestation. We don’t know how many trees are left so before we can even begin to talk about reviving this industry, we need to make sure the trees are protected. I would also hope that lace-bark might be of interest to Jamaican fashion designers, and local scholars of Textiles and Fibres, particularly in this age of environmental responsibility that emphasizes green and sustainable fabrics.

Jacqueline Bishop
Jacqueline Bishop

Jacqueline Bishop is an award-winning writer and visual artist born in Jamaica, who now lives and works in New York City. She has twice been awarded Fulbright Fellowships, including a year-long grant to Morocco. Her work exhibits widely in North America, Europe and North Africa. She teaches in Liberal Studies at New York University; and is the author of The Gymnast & Other Positions, which won the 2015 Bocas Award, nonfiction, among other books. She writes a monthly column on visual arts for the Huffington Post. Visit her website at