Esparto

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Esparto grass or needle grass is a perennial grass of the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula. It grows in dry, rocky and base rich soils, forming a steppe-like grassland. Traditionally has been used for crafts, such as cords and basketry.

Name of Material in the local and Latin language
Esparto, Stipa tenacissima L. (a recently proposed new name is Macrochloa tenacissima (Loefl. ex L.) Kunth)
Type of Material
Organic
Commonly Found Locations
South of Portugal

Colour
Originally light green, it slowly turns golden brown by desiccation.
Density
< 0.60 g/cm3 of for stem specific density (SSD) – Herbaceous (non-woody) plant
Hardness
Organs used are the cylindrical, flexible, culms (specific designation for the stems of grasses).
Chemical Composition
Other than cellulose, grass stems usually have cells impregnated with hardening substances, such as lignin and silica.

Industrial and Crafts Applications
Esparto (Esparto grass) weaving, more characteristic of Alentejo and Algarve, is braided and sewn.
Historical or Cultural Uses
The products were traditionally made for agricultural transport and use, basket bags, domestic use and floor mats.
Environmental Impact
Not known

Extraction Methods
The Esparto grass is uprooted using a stick on which the fibers are rolled up and pulled from the ground.
Processing Techniques
After the harvest, the esparto is cleaned and dried. It is cut below the flower and then stored. Before starting to work with it, the grass has to be moistened to make it easier to manipulate.
Recycling and Waste Management
100% biodegradable if not mixed with any chemical product or material.

Interesting Facts or Historical Anecdotes
Esparto basketry is well-known and traditional on the Iberian Peninsula. The same techniques and products were made in both countries, Portugal and Spain. Nevertheless, 60 or 70 years ago, there were many craftspeople practicing this craft in the South of Portugal, where the grass naturally grows; however, it went extinct. In 2022, after intensive training with a Spanish craftsman, eight people learned how to do this craft, and currently, there are three active basket weavers in Portugal.
Relevant Organizations, Associations, Producers
Casa do Esparto - Loulé Criativo
  • PT_Esparto_Nature Profile_03©Jenna Duffy

    Esparto (esparto or needle grass, Stipa tenacissima L.) is a perennial grass growing in the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula. It grows in dry, rocky and base rich soils, forming a steppe-like grassland.

  • PT_Esparto_Nature Profile_04©Jenna Duffy

Traditionally, esparto has been used for crafts, such as cords and basketry. In Portugal, esparto weaving is braided and sewn, and is characteristic of the Alentejo and Algarve regions.

The ideal time to collect esparto is in Summer; the drier and rougher the land, the tougher the plant and the greater its quality and resistance. It’s uprooted using a stick on which the fibers are rolled up and pulled from the ground. Small bundles are made to dry for about 2 weeks and regularly turned for uniform drying. 

After drying, the fiber is then ready to be used in more decorative pieces. However, if the aim is for objects that require greater resistance and durability, or to obtain softer fibers, it must be submerged in water for a lunar cycle – a fermentation process that withdraws the cellulose – and then beaten to soften and dry.
While working, water is sprayed on to ease the process. When working raw, it should be put in water for 1 day before beginning, then placed in a towel to maintain humidity. Hands are the main tool but a wooden mallet, needles, scissors and pliers are also used. The same techniques and products were made in both countries, Portugal and Spain. Traditionally, these were for agricultural transport and use, basket bags, domestic use and floor mats. About sixty or seventy years ago, there were many craftspeople practicing this craft in the South of Portugal, where the grass naturally grows; however, it went extinct. In 2022, after intensive training with a Spanish craftsman, eight people learned how to do this craft, and currently, there are three active basket weavers in Portugal. 

Loulé Criativo, through Casa do Esparto, has been doing relevant work on promoting the basketry made with esparto grass. Best-selling products nowadays are small brooms, although other objects are also common such as carrycots and flat baskets, handbags, lampshades and the traditional donkey heads. However, since the collection of the material can be so demanding as well as the handwork itself – in comparison to working with other fibers – the prices of many pieces can become quite expensive, making it a difficult craft to make profit from.

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