Fri | May 24, 2019

Racquel Johnson making macramé modern

Published:Friday | April 19, 2019 | 12:10 AMPaul H. Williams - Gleaner Writer
Macramé artist Racquel Johnson displaying her 'twin' owls.
Macramé artist Racquel Johnson displaying her 'twin' owls.

Macramé, is the art of knotting strings/ropes/cordinto patterns. Accessories, caps, hats, bags, clothes, household items, hammocks,etc., can be made with the macramé technique. Yet, it is an ancient art from whose popularity had been gradually waning for many reasons.

The research has revealed that there are many versions of the origin of the art and the name itself. One version says it came from a 13th-century Arabic weavers word,‘migramah’, which means 'fringe'. Another version is maintaining that it came from the Turkish ‘makrama’, meaning 'napkin' or 'towel'. Macramé is said to be the name that evolved from migramah in Spain to where it is said the Moors brought the art from Africa.

Here in Jamaica, it was once (1970s) a popular pastime, alongside weaving, knitting, crocheting, etc., especially in the days when electronic and other ‘modern’ technologies were not a factor on the lists of things to do and see. With much time on their hands, people sat and made knots upon knots, of various sizes and types, until they had created what they had set out to.

It was one of the things 4-H clubs and other social groups would teach their members, and some people learned it in their high-school art classes. Those days are long gone, and macramé seems to be tied up in the unravelling knots of time, never to regain the stranglehold it had in the scheme of making things with cords, ropes and strings.

Yet, one young woman, Racquel Johnson, is on a quest to pull and loop macramé from museum archives back into people’s lives. She is one of the students who learned the basics of macramé in school. For her, it was Meadowbrook High School in St Andrew.

After graduating from Meadowbrook, Johnson had embarked upon producing macramé bags to earn some money. That vocation was put on hold after she got a regular job. The passion was reignited when she was encouraged to go back to her art by an acquaintance, the artist and artisan, Mortimer McPherson, who has guided and pushed her over the years.

In fact, Johnson was one of the first three people who did a CSEC art exam privately. This was possible after McPherson pushed the Caribbean Examination Council to offer art to students who were not registered in regular government and private high schools. Macramé was the art form that she focused on for the exam, for which she got a Grade One. She still has her school-based assessment pieces.

In a conversation with The Gleaner recently, Johnson spoke of the tremendous, but rigid support she got from McPherson, and the intricacies and nuances of making macramé pieces. The art is precise, tedious, time-consuming, and takes much commitment. Johnson admitted that there were times, especially when she was being pushed, when she was not enjoying it. However, she knotted on, and have eventually mastered the art.

Johnson is now holding her first workshop, Macramé the Art of Knots, over this Easter weekend, and is hoping that it will rekindle an interest in an art form that can produce so many wonderful things. She is looking forward to the workshop and is encouraging people to attend, to learn an art that could create an income for them, or just for passing time.

As a matter of fact, macramé has been making a resurgence of sorts, especially in the jewellery industry. Watch bands, wristlets/bracelets, necklaces and pendant holders made of cotton twines, linen, hemp, jute, leather or yarn, are on the shelves of online shops.

“If I can find a few persons to impart it to them, they now can take it on and spread it. I’m really, really excited to share what is in my head,” said Johnson, who also paints and draws at Studio Mortimer.

McPherson, her mentor and teacher, is expecting great things for Johnson, who, he says, is now guiding visual arts teachers with the art of macramé.

“She is becoming somebody who, down the road, another five years from now, will be a force to reckon with, because right now, in Jamaica, the level she’s at in regard to macramé, I am not seeing anybody else at the level,” said McPherson.