Monday, May 23, 2011

Island Braids

When traveling to the Caribbean, it's hard not to notice the intricate cornrows and micro-braids worn by both residents and tourists alike. I had the opportunity to see these incredible hair creations in person during a recent trip to the beautiful island of St. Lucia.

It's common for St. Lucian residents who choose not to relax their Afro-Caribbean hair, to create braids that look beautiful and keep their faces and necks cool (The average temperature is about 80 degrees Fahrenheit).

Many women decorate the ends of their braids with colorful beads and seashells. Visitors to the island also embrace braids for the same reasons and as a fun "souvenir" to wear home.

Island Braids
St. Lucian resident Chermaine models her braids in an elaborate updo.
Island Braids
Missouri native Julie sports three micro braids adorned with beads as a tropical fashion statement.

I had the good fortune to meet with Catherine, a St. Lucian resident who has been braiding hair since childhood, although she prefers to wear her hair relaxed. Catherine now works as a master hairdresser for a resort and said that braids are extremely popular with tourists.

When I asked what was the longest hair she had ever braided, Catherine said she once spent four hours creating a full head of micro-braids for a woman with classic-length hair. Since I couldn't picture myself sitting in her chair for that long, I asked for just three micro-braids like she had just completed for Julie, a visitor from Missouri.

Catherine's first step was to decide how wide to make each micro-braid based on the thickness of the hair. Mine were about 1/4" wide. Next, she spritzed my hair with water for more control over the strands. She twisted my hair at the scalp where she then began braiding. Her hands were literally a blur as she worked her way down to my ends - the result of many years of practice! Although many women with Afro-Caribbean hair singe their ends to seal the braids, Catherine used a tiny piece of tinfoil to wrap my ends and keep the beads in place.

Island Braids
Catherine separates my hair into tiny sections
to begin braiding.
Island Braids
Her hands move lightning-fast
as she completes each braid.
Island Braids
She adds beads and wraps the ends
with tiny bits of tinfoil.

Catherine explained that although cornrows don't work well on thin or fine hair, micro-braids can be worn by nearly everyone. Cornrows start at the very top of the scalp and gather hair on the way down, much like French braids. Micro-braids are only attached at one point on the scalp and are able to swing freely. Women with Afro-Caribbean hair can wear their braids for up to 6 weeks, while people of other ethnicities usually have to remove them sooner as the braids start to loosen and look unkempt.

When she was finished, Catherine gave me the following tips:
  • Dab sunscreen where the braids begin and the scalp is exposed in order to prevent burning in the hot sun
  • Wash the scalp with shampoo and allow it to drip down the braid - don't shampoo the braid itself
  • Coat braids daily with conditioner or oil to keep them in good shape
  • To remove braids, use conditioner or oil to detangle as you gently unravel them.
  • Long hair-friendly suggestions for Caribbean-style hair braiding:
  • Coat ends in conditioner before covering with foil. This will keep them from drying out and frizzing
  • Coat your hands with oil and gently run them over each braid to keep them conditioned
  • Take your time when removing braids and enlist the help of a friend if your hair is extra-long to avoid snarls
  • After removing braids, immediately wash hair with warm water and deep condition it to return hair to its normal texture.
Island Braids
A traditional Caribbean shampoo recipe called for soaking hibiscus leaves in water, then working the green extraction into the hair and scalp. Coconut oil was used as a conditioner.

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