The Palmyra palm grows in abundance along the southern coastline of the Indian peninsular from Cochin to Madras. The tree on the whole is extremely useful to the inhabitants of this area. The fruit, leaves and stem of the tree together fulfill all the requirements of the village communities, from manure for personal adornment. The pliable, tender Palmyra leaf has good structural strength, so it is used to make decorative Olai (leaf) baskets. Palm tree grow in high temperature areas. They grow up to 100 feet height crowned by large fan-shaped leaves that radiate from its tip. Each tree has approximately twenty-eight fronds of fully opened leaves. They are leathery, brittle and greenish brown in color. But the best material for making Palmyra baskets is the Kuruttu, the tender new leaf.
The new leaves appear once a month amidst the nature fronds. It is soft, liable and ivory-colored. In order to retain these qualities, it is harvested before it unfolds into characteristic fan shape. Each leaflet folds along a midrib locally known as eerke, which is used as a rim for the basket. The leaf stem is the strongest part of the leaf.
It is slightly concave in section and has a rough skin on both sides. The skin of the inner section known as naar has a hard, smooth, shiny surface and a fairly high tensile strength and is a popular material for baskets. As naar products are longer lasting, this raw material is much more expensive than the delicate leaf.
The palm leaves are harvested in the month of April and May and left to dry under sunlight for a day. The dried leafs are stored in places where it doesn’t come in contact with water. The leaflets at the base of the fan-shaped leaf are known as “throw leaflets” and those at the tip is known as “nose leaflets”. The artisan removes these because they are too short and narrow to use for basket weaving. The dried palm leaves are washed with plain water and the excess water is rinsed. The midrib of the leaf is removed with the help of sathagam (knife) and the leaf is cut into strips of required size with the help of a cutting machine locally called as Ole machine. These strips are then taken for dying process.
For plain baskets the leaf strips are dipped in boiled water and kept it to dry and for colored basket the strips are dipped in colored water. This process is mostly done for strengthening process but it is not put in the water and boiled because it damages the leaf. Few strands of strips are dipped for multi-coloring, which gives an attractive look when weaved into a basket.
Before weaving, the basket water is sprinkled on the strips to keep them moist and avoid breakages while weaving. Based on the required size of the basket the palm stripes are arranged vertically and horizontally interlocking each other. Over that a wooden slab is placed on it and held with hands and feet for support. Once the base is weaved the strips are bent and the sidewalls of the baskets are interlaced and weaved till the required length. At the end, the midrib of the leaf is used as a rim and weaved at the mouth of the basket with a thread for strength and enhancing the outlook of the product.
Since palm leaf baskets are flexible and are easily deformed they have to be double-layered and reinforced at the rim with a stronger material. The excess strips are folded and interlocked inside the basket in a manner that the ends are not visible. Beads are pasted or weaved on the baskets to embellish.
Mainly women artisans are engaged in making these baskets. The baskets making are done in a traditional way. The woven baskets are used for the purpose of storing food and grains.