April 5, 202411 Minutes

Farm to Crafts finds its footing with banana fibers

Nienke Hoogvliet’s presentation at The Cathedral of Thorns attracts the largest crowd till date. Despite it being a weekday, in the midst of the busy carnival season, it’s a full house. The Dutch designer is visiting the island for the first time, but her fame has already reached the audience.

Reading Nienke’s resume inspires enthusiasm. Her commitment to sustainability is seen in all her projects. From transforming seaweed into natural dyes and yarns to transforming wastewater into bioplastic. During her stay on the island, she returns to the basics of Farm to Crafts. How can we help local farmers while also connecting Curaçao’s crafts industry? Her research leads her to the banana.

Curaçaoan Cuisine

In a Curaçaoan meal, the plantain is indispensable. Sliced ​​pieces are fried in oil and served as an extra with a meal. But banana stobá (stewed plantain) or sopi banana (plantain soup) with pigtail are also part of Curaçaoan cuisine. The cradle of the banana is in Asia. The wild banana, which originally grew in the forest and was full of seeds, was estimated to have been domesticated about seven thousand years ago. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the Latin American countries and the Caribbean islands were still colonies of Spain, Portugal, England, France, and the Netherlands, banana plants were already brought here, mostly as food for the enslaved on the plantations. It was during this period that the Portuguese and Spanish adopted the words banana and plátano from West African languages. 

Research from 2022 among a group of 40 local regenerative farmers shows that bananas, papayas, and pumpkins are the most planted crops on the island. In addition to farmers in the field, the banana tree also stands in many households’ gardens. After some persuasion from Nienke, the entire team is convinced of the potential of banana fibers. “The trunks of the banana plant are waste for many farmers because banana trees produce fruit only once in their lives. Moreover, a constant supply of crops is needed for the project’s success,” says farmer and designer Gino Martina, who still cherishes a preference for the softer fibers of the sansevieria.


The trunk of the banana tree is not a real trunk but consists of leaf stems rolled together. The growing point is underground. Before flowering, this grows upward through the center of the pseudo-stem, and thus the inflorescence appears at the top of the plant. When the plant has finished blooming and the fruits are ripe, the trunk dies. One or more new shoots grow from underground growing points. In this way, the plant continues to live and multiplies by forming a clone of itself.

Farm to Crafts can buy the pseudo-stems from farmers, providing them with an additional source of income. “Now it’s a matter of showing that you can also extract beautiful fibers from the banana for making ropes, mats, and woven fabrics. Also, the residual fibers of the banana are suitable for punching, a technique for making felt. But what makes it even more interesting are the by-products. The pulp of the banana stem contains a lot of cellulose. In theory, you can make handmade paper from that perfectly. And on the spot, I saw that the juice of the banana trunk stains. When Googling, I found out that there is a lot of tannin in bananas,” says Nienke. “You can collect the extract for making natural paint.” Tannin, also called tannic acid, helps improve color fixation on fibers, resulting in sustainable and vibrant color effects.

Hard work

For her research, Nienke works meticulously. Everything is documented. In images and writing. “Careful documentation is super important. One study is not a study, and one test is not a test. If you want to repeat something and you haven’t documented it well, it’s impossible to achieve the same results.”

It soon becomes clear that abstracting fibers from the banana stems is not an easy process. “It’s hard work and labor-intensive,” says Nienke. Together with Gino and several volunteers, she worked in the field from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. They collected the stems at Hòfi Cas Cora, laid them on the ground to drive over them with a car to crush them, and then abstracted the fibers by hand. For this, they scraped with a spoon over the crushed stems. At the end of the day, they had only ten usable strands. The purchase of a fiber extracting machine from China should facilitate this process.

Nienke herself suspects that the fibers can be even finer by first boiling them and then scraping them. The outer layer of the trunk has the most fibers that are the strongest. The inside of the tree results in softer fibers. Nienke: “In Japan, they grow non-edible bananas for the fibers, maybe those are softer?”

Luxury lounge chair

Coming up with a product was one of the assignments Nienke received before boarding the plane to Hato. At her final presentation, after more than two full weeks in Curaçao, she unveils her creation: a lounge chair with a curtain of falling banana fibers. “I want a product where the fiber comes into its own. The softness, strength, and length are emphasized with the lounge chair.” At the drawing board, she first envisioned a burst of colors. A bright rainbow chair. But after intense discussion with the team, she opted for a different color palette. Project leader Cleo de Brabander argued for a final product where Nienke stays true to herself by using softer colors. “Nienke has already made a name for herself in the design world. Also, the market we are targeting, Dutch Design buyers, are likely not inclined towards bright colors.”


In the end, Nienke opts for the stunning Curaçaoan sunset. The evening sky she admired every day from her balcony, filling her with awe. She mimics the colors with the dushi di kabei, or yellowwood (Chlorophora tinctoria), palu brasia, brazilwood (Haematoxylum brasiletto), and indigo. Natural resources growing on the island.

Nienke’s design invites touch. “The way an object feels to the touch intrigues me,” says Nienke, who also experimented with a knotting technique for the banana fibers. “The idea is that the hanging banana fibers come between the knots. How many fibers do you need for that?” A question the team cannot yet answer.


Since the inception of Farms to Crafts, it has become clear that extracting fibers takes time and is labor-intensive. “The chair is a year-long plan,” says Cleo. “In the short term, paper is more useful. Banana paper is very practical, and the production knowledge is easy to share with others. Thus, a lampshade made of paper in different colors is manageable.” Packaging paper and selling packs of colored sheets are also mentioned by the team as an option.

The paper production has not been worked out in detail yet. Nienke: “I’m still searching for the right pulp thickness. It requires some research. The pulp must be scooped onto paper using a frame. The thin layer on the frame is then pressed and dried until it has the right paper structure.” Her own experiments show varying results. From fragile, almost transparent candy paper to thick cardboard with fibers running through it like veins. Volunteers to fine-tune paper production are already on standby.



Nienke hopes to inspire others with her research. She has printed her banana fibers report on thick paper. The visiting team of Stichting DOEN, who made her stay in Curaçao possible, bring the booklet as a gift. “The beauty of Farm to Crafts is the underlying goal of achieving a social income for farmers and crafters, producing less waste, and promoting appreciation for nature. You can actually create value from almost everything that grows on the island,” Nienke said before bidding farewell to Curaçao. Browsing through the photo document, these words resonate.