Palapa Fiber Art



There is a wonderful palapa in the gardens here at the QQ. As you can imagine, it’s most popular during the hot season when shade is a welcome sight. The old roof had seen it’s better days, so it was time for a replacement – and that’s how I got a lesson in Palapa Fiber Art.

[Tweet “A palapa roof is much like a giant upside-down basket.”]



The bones of a palapa roof

The construction of a palapa is deceptively simple. As I watched the roof go up, I struggled to find the right analogy. I finally realized (a week later), that the process is much like upside down basket weaving on a grand scale!



Thatch removed from old roof

The first job, of course, is to remove all the old thatch from the roof structure. As you can imagine, this was a very messy job! After many years of providing shelter, the old thatch was badly deteriorated.



Slender poles for the new roof

Next up, the new materials arrived. I’m not sure exactly what these slender poles are, but I have to believe these guys know what they are doing. My spanish was not good enough to ask a lot of questions, but I certainly enjoyed watching!



Truck loads of palm leaves from the coast

This is one of many truckloads of palm leaves that came in from the coast. If you have visited a beach community in Mexico, you’ve probably spent time under a palapa.



The new roof takes shape

The next step was to reinforce the structure and add new poles across the posts. I noticed that the poles were placed in pairs, a bit different than the original roof.



Adding thatch from the bottom up

Once the structure was complete, palm leaves were added from the bottom up. It was fascinating to watch the process. The guys would haul up a big bundle of leaves with a rope, then add the leaves quickly and precisely around the structure.



Carefully spaced palm leaves

From the inside, you can see the pattern of the leaves. The leaves are held in place by friction, with the tight spacing and the strength of the stem doing all the work.



All neat and tidy on the inside

When you look at the inside of the completed roof, it’s clear that Palapa Fiber Art is indeed an art. Much like a basket weaver adds pliable materials to a frame to form a vessel, the workers added palm leaves to the palapa frame to create a giant upside-down basket that we see as a roof. Pretty cool if you ask me!



The new roof will last for man years!

The new roof looks quite “fuzzy” from the outside. Not to worry. The rains will come in June and the “fresh haircut” look will turn into a durable roof to provide shade and shelter for years to come.

[Tweet “The “fuzzy” palapa roof hides a remarkably durable structure.”]

Your Turn

Have you had the opportunity to watch a different type of fiber art in progress? Leave a comment below. I would love to hear your stories!


  1. Patti on April 6, 2017 at 11:25 am

    It is fascinating to watch a palapa being either built from scratch or just re-leafed(?) I’ve seen both done and sat mesmerized as the young men worked.
    This spring, while in Mexico, I watched as they started from scratch with very few tools. They built the structure for 3 huge palapas one a day for three days. Just a hose and water for their level. A hammer and nails, some scaffolding and their hands . They wore no special safety equipment …they didn’t even wear shoes! And when they were finished it WAS a beautiful work of art!

    • ShellyStokes on April 6, 2017 at 5:16 pm

      It is fascinating, Patti! It would have been fun to talk more with the workers, but my Spanish is limited when it comes to asking technical questions. I did note that the guys adding the palm leaves had a safety belt around one knee to keep from sliding off. It’s not obvious unless you see them attaching it, but they are being careful.

  2. Sudne Bortel on April 6, 2017 at 11:55 am

    Thank you for documenting! Fascinating to see and understand a process I’ve never thought about! The concept of “friction” and tight spacing holding the leaves in place is a new concept. and while the work fits with my basket making experience, I’ve never done a basket without wrapping
    or weaving the materials.

    • ShellyStokes on April 6, 2017 at 5:20 pm

      That’s a good observation, Sudne. I think gravity also plays a big part along with friction. That and the fact that no one will be walking around on the roof once it is finished!

  3. Sharon Bottini on April 6, 2017 at 1:56 pm

    Definitely fiber art

    • ShellyStokes on April 6, 2017 at 5:21 pm

      I agree!

  4. Elizabeth A. Franck on April 12, 2017 at 11:55 pm

    The ingenuity of men and women! I would suggest that the poles they added might have been bamboo. It grows fast, economical, as well as, quite pliable and comes in different diameter thicknesses depending on the size of the plant. I have always been fascinated in the creative process. Thanks for sharing.

    Part of my research in studying Native Americans was very involved in studying non-western traditional processes of creating both functional and ritual objects.

    While teaching at Beloit College, I suggested doing a Wisc. Humanities Grant to document six traditional Native American Woodland Crafts (had to say “crafts” for a humanities grant). A grant was written and funded.
    We interviewed (documenting with tape recorders and cameras – 1980’s) the men and women who shared the traditions taught and passed down from generation to generation. Six video tapes were made with their voices and demonstrations with voice overs by the four research team members . The most unusual one for me was Indian Tanning which used the brains of deer as a part of the process of curing the deer skin.
    Events were scheduled, across the state of Wisconsin, where the sharing of “process”with mixed audiences of Native American and non- Native American, was very successful.

    • ShellyStokes on April 17, 2017 at 8:38 pm

      I think you are right, Elizabeth. The poles are most likely bamboo.

      I was nodding my head as I read about your research. One of the big events in Chapala each November is the Feria Maestros del Arte. It’s one of the major art fairs in Mexico, and the organizers bring in artists from around the country who are keeping their native art and craft traditions alive. It’s refreshing to see (and support) artists who are working in crafts handed down through the generations.