This week’s article is a quirky departure from the columnist’s usual commentaries about local architecture and architectural conservation. Instead, it is a useful article on how to weave coconut fronds into usable thatch for household use.
Palm fronds as building construction material
For natives living along Sabah’s island, coastal and river tributaries, the knowledge of using palm fronds as building materials has been traditionally passed down for many generations.
In the west and northern regions of Pulau Banggi in Kudat, for instance, the Bonggi and other native people use a kind of thorny palm species locally known as ‘pofit’ as their main building material, giving their houses, a feathery-looking exterior. The incorporation of ‘daun bala”, a fan-shaped type of palm species used for the Dusun Bonggi house replica at Museum Sabah, is found mainly on the eastern side of the island, where it grows in abundance.
While some locals claim that roofing using coconut frond thatch does not last long; others claim that it may last as long as nine years. I think it depends on the palm species, how it is harvested and how expertly the thatch is woven.
Anyway, enough about the theory, let’s try to weave a panel of coconut palm thatch!
Step 1: Choose your coconut palm
Select a coconut palm frond for this task. Choose a well-grown palm frond with long slender leaflets.
Note: Do not use dried or dead coconut leaves, as it is brittle and will not weave well.
Step 2: Split the coconut frond into equal halves
Then trim the split palm frond’s spine (to equal thickness) with a sharp knife or machete. This will allow the finished thatch to sit evenly when it is fastened together, or onto the roof.
Step 3: Bend and weave the leaflets using a formula of 5 + 2 + 2
Coconut palm leaflets grow naturally in one direction. Locate the first leaflet at the stem of the sliced palm frond, and count up to five. Bend the fifth leaflet in the opposite direction, and weave it over the fourth leaflet, then under the third leaflet, and so forth (Refer to Illustration 1).
Follow up by counting the next two leaflets, bend the second leaflet and repeat the process. Do the same with the other slice of coconut palm frond, but in reverse (mirror image).
Note: While weaving, make sure that the palm leaflets are well opened and not squashed, as this may potentially cause leakage.
Step 4: Make pegs after 8 – 10 woven leaflets
Pegs are important to ensure that the woven palm fronds do not unravel or become loose during transportation and installation on the roof.
At intervals of 8 - 10 woven leaflets, select a spot where any two leaflets intersect and overlap each other. Bend and carefully break the spine of the top leaflet, just over the spine of the underlying second leaflet (approximately 10mm). This can be done with a small sharp knife or a really hard fingernail. Poke the end of the broken leaflet spine into the second underlying leaflet. This should create a ‘hook’ to anchor the woven leaflets together (Refer to Illustration 2).
Note: Making pegs are a bit tricky at first, so expect some messy or untidy looking pegs, torn thatch, etc in the beginning. However, one will become adept after a few successful tries.
During weaving, it is normal to come across streaks of brittle, or insect-bitten palm leaflets, especially on coconut palm fronds. My advice is to just weave these ‘imperfect’ leaflets into the thatch. Do not fret, as the accumulation of thatch will sort of any leaking issues that a single thatch may have.
Step 5: Tidy up the woven thatch to complete the look
Take the straggly ends of the palm thatch at the end of the woven panel and bend them again in a linear arrangement, then bend the ends of the leaflets again, to make it a thicker ‘plug’, which is then inserted into selected intersections of the woven leaflets (Refer to Illustration 3).
…and that completes the creation of a woven coconut frond thatch!
For use as roof cover
The effective coverage area of a single layer of woven coconut frond (measured from its split spine) is approximately 250mm – 300mm per panel, and is dependant on the width of the palm fronds used for this exercise. It is advised to use palm frond of similar size and width, to ensure a regularity of installation as well as for aesthetic purposes.
Note: To make certain that the roof doesn’t leak, both sides of the woven palm frond is used and must be tied together to form one complete panel of thatch when the weaving is completed. 1 palm frond = 1 complete panel for roofing.
It is important to take note that during installation, the undersides (referring to the dull, unpolished surface of the coconut palm thatch) of the thatch panels should ideally be facing outward to the sky.
To create a roof ridge cover, a medium-sized piece of bamboo, cut in ½ or 3/5 is usually sufficient to cover the gaps. Otherwise, a piece of large PVC piping, a hollowed trunk made from nibong (a type of water-durable palm) or zinc sheet will suffice. Anchor the ridge cap with some heavy tree branches or diagonal timber braces.
What can a woven panel of coconut palm thatch be used for?
The process of weaving coconut palm leaflets is fun, simple and safe. Here is a list of scenarios where a woven coconut palm thatch can be utilized for modern purposes:
1) A children’s playhouse – home-made, woven coconut leaf playhouses are more interesting than the expensive plastic ones you can buy from the shopping complex. Plus, kids will love it, especially if they played a part in weaving this playhouse together.
2) Roof or paneling for chicken coop
3) Shade panel for young plants
4) Temporary shelters
5) Temporary roof for modern house (emergency times)
6) For bathing partitions during camping trips
7) Roofing for outdoor terraces, etc to give a more tropical ambience to the house.
The principles of the 5+2+2 formula apply to pretty much all palm leaf species, so it would be interesting if readers themselves were to experiment and see what interesting ideas or designs they can come up with.
The weaving method above was handed down to me by a Mr. ‘Ray’ from Sukau, Sandakan. Coconut palm thatch weaving is a recreational activity that is not only simple and therapeutic, but also will help to spread a skill or knowledge that may come in handy during times of emergency, as a form of temporary shelter. Its interesting aesthetic and space cooling properties also gives us a deeper appreciation of the old native knowledge that is now at the cusp of extinction, and why the younger generation of Sabahans should have a desire to study and document these aspects before it is lost to human memory.