In ‘Rumpelstiltskin,’ a well-known children’s fairy tale, the heroine displays the fantastic talent of being able to spin straw into gold. Indeed quite a monumental accomplishment; but of course there is a vast difference between fantasy and reality. Or is there?
When Gloria Gaskin first started her straw craft business many years ago, her main driving force was a desire to be self-employed and to be able to afford to give her daughter Ann, a sound education.
Gloria started making straw bags and hats and selling them via the marketing branch of the Barbados Industrial Development Corporation. She took great pride in her work, insisted upon quality and always delivered well-finished products. Gloria’s sales increased accordingly, especially when she opened a retail outlet at the Pelican Village Craft Market, but in keeping with her modest ambitions, her business continued to grow at a gentle pace. Then in March 1998, Gloria’s world began to change the reality of her life took a dramatic fairy tale twist.
Gloria is a humble and instantly likable person and, as she tells her story today, her face radiates the happy but somewhat bemused expression of somebody who still can’t quite believe her good fortune.
After many years of happily chatting with thousands of tourists, ever willing to explain her production techniques, Gloria sensed nothing out of the ordinary when she sold a plaited straw-bag to a very enthusiastic customer off a cruise ship, even though the lady did seem especially interested in her work. However, as fate would have it, that particular bag eventually ended up in the offices of haute couture designer Anna Sui in NewYork.
The fashion experts took one look at Gloria’s work and instantly ‘flipped out.’ And so began Gloria’s fairy tale.
It’s a very long way from the fields of Barbados and a little shop in Pelican Village to the fashion runways of New York, but that’s precisely where Gloria’s bags and hats went.
In a lightning fast series of events, Gloria’s work was ordered and re-ordered; the world’s top models were seen carrying her bags and wearing her hats at fashion shows, in fashion magazines and on television’s ultimate fashion programme “Style with Elsa Klensch.”
“I just couldn’t believe it was all happening to me,” reflects Gloria. Then, before she’d even had time to let all of that sink-in correctly, Gloria was whisked off to New York in person to accept The 10th International American Award for Quality for 1998. This highly prestigious honor was presented to Gloria at the equally prestigious Waldorf- Astoria Hotel.
Since then Gloria has been approached by more fashion designers who are keen to use her work. It still amuses Gloria that they are all so secretive about their plans and beg her to keep her designs for them in the ‘Top Secret’ drawer. Most of the designers will give Gloria a selection of colors and ask her to create pieces to match.
The straw that Gloria uses is processed from the Pandanas plant. Known locally as the Cane Lily, the leaves are picked in both a dried and a natural state. Cottage workers then prepare the straw and weave or plait it into sheets or strips, depending on what job it is to be used for.
Much of this work is done in the village of Chalky Mount, better known for its pottery, or in the parishes of St. Andrew, St. John and St. Lucy where the Cane Lily grows. When the finished plaited materials are ready, Gloria drives around with her husband Reynold to collect it from her workers.
In addition to doing all the design work, Gloria explains that she also does all of the stitching herself as she believes this to be the most crucial part of the production process.
A known trademark of Gloria’s work is the clever use of open raffia to create the colorful designs portrayed on each hag or hat. Gloria credits her daughter Ann for having initiated this technique. With bubbling pride, Gloria goes on to also credit her daughter with the high standards of her work. “Ann is always such a real perfectionist in whatever she does. So, whenever she is around the workshop, she will always he fussing and insisting upon getting things right, teaching the girls how to do it properly. I have to say she’s been a big influence in here.”
Gloria Gaskin has taken the leaves of a wild plant growing in Barbados and transformed them into the latest accessory craze on the fashion runways of NewYork. She has managed to turn straw into gold. When questioned about which aspect of her fantastic story has given her the most satisfaction, the answer is almost inevitable. “Ann. Ann’s education. She is at medical school at Boston University right now. My daughter is going to be a doctor.”
Gloria Gaskin can be contacted at (246) 417-0463.
Article is written in 1999 and compliments of “Ins and Outs of Barbados” Magazine