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The screw-pine industry in Kerala has a rich, one may say, maritime history. Even though today, there are screw-pine mats, hats and purses, in the Middle Ages Kerala sailors used the fabric extensively. It was so popular that sails from the screw-pine capital of Kadalpai, near the town Quilon, were popular among Western sailors too. A screw-pine plant resembles the foliage of a palm tree but its leaves are soft and fibrous, protected by small, sharp thorns on both edges.

The traditional method for extracting the silken fiber of screw-pine leaves involves coconut fiber. The coarse fibers remove the small thorns that appear on both sides of the screw-pine leaf. These leaves may be short or long, the shorter ones are considered inferior as the fiber they give is not as strong and long as their longer counterparts. These short fibers are instead processed directly, for example, they are dyed and tied together into small clumps, that makes it easier to use them.

The longer leaved screw-pine gives fine and long fibers and a thinner material is needed to split them from other fibers of the leaf. In order soften them; the raw fibers are cooked with boiling milk for some time. This also helps to cure them, in a way, are make the fibers more rugged as well as silky. Threads are then dyed with traditional colors and then cross-woven. Dimensions of the fabric or mats can be stretched as per requirements by interlocking new threads in the weaving process.

These two qualities are used in combination with each other, the coarse fabric providing structural strength remains below the smoother, finer fabric. Apart from the dye, additional embroidery and patch working is also done in case of decorative devices. Weaving the screw-pine threads into a fabric is a complex job demanding deft fingers and only the highly skilled and agile artisans are involved in it. Authentic screw-pine products can be quite expensive in some cases.

Artifacts made of Screw Pine

In Kerala, some regions are known especially for their screw-pine products for instance, Thazava, Vachrai and Vallikunnam villages in Thiruvananthapuram and Kottayam districts, Mavelikkara and Karthikapalli in Alappuzha district and Karunagapalli in Kollam district of Kerala.

Many families from these villages have been producing screw-pine fabric for generations and usually produce three qualities of the fabric. Since ancient times the status of this fabric in South India has been similar to linen in western world. The tough and artful screw-pine mats are popular but one can also find delicate artwork done in screw-pine hats, tablecloths, blinds and bags.

The many families that have been working with screw-pine for generations are now practicing their art with more vigor and passion, because in the modern world this ancient tradition of Kerala is feared to be diminishing. Most of the practitioners, along with many enthusiasts, work hard to follow the traditional methods with a view of preserving its heritage and quality.

Due to its exquisite handiwork and gentle demeanor, screw-pine products are popular among tourist and locals as gift articles and souvenirs. Perhaps the most important factor is the labor and passion of the artisans creating these masterpieces, which makes the screw-pine mats, purses and wall-hangings so special.

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