Raffia is a straw-like material that is used in many different craft projects. It is an inexpensive product that can be found in any craft store. There are many uses for raffia, ranging from gift embellishment to a special kind of massage therapy. Although it is mainly used as a fiber, it can also be woven.
Raffia comes from the leaves of a palm tree that originated in Madagascar but has been successfully transplanted to other areas of eastern Africa, where most of the world’s raffia comes from.
The Raffia Palm
The tree's scientific name is raffia farinifera, but it is better known as the raffia palm. Because of the tropical climate in which it grows, the tree prefers very wet soil and can grow over 40 feet tall. Its leaves are among the longest of any tree in the world. They are cut vertically and dried to create strands. There are 20 different species of palm trees that are closely related to raffia farinifera.
The name raffia may have originated from the Greek word rafis, which means needle. The leaves or fronds of the palm are long and pointed, which may account for the comparison to a needle.
The raffia palm looks like many other kinds of palm trees. Its trunk is relatively short compared to its large leaves. Its fruit is a shiny brown color with a “scale” texture.
Raffia is extremely soft and can be dyed easily. It can be woven like straw to create mats, hats and baskets. It is most often used in place of ribbon, twine or string. Because it is impervious to the elements, it is often used in outdoor decorations.
A raffia brush is a key element in a form of massage called Shmeisse, which is Jewish in origin. After a chair massage for the upper body, the customer is ushered into a steam room. Using an oversize, soft raffia brush, the massage therapist gently massages the body. The process has been compared to a "car wash" feeling. The massage ends with the application of cold towels.
Raffia is an inexpensive way to embellish many kinds of projects. For a natural look, strands of raffia can be used to wrap gifts instead of a ribbon. Some people use raffia in place of paper by simply wrapping it around a gift. Centerpieces, wreaths and rubber stamped card designs often include raffia.