Corn dolly making
The making of a harvest token from cereal crop straw; they can be made from wheat (most common), oats or rye, though not usually barley (see also straw working).
|Historic area of significance||UK|
|Area currently practised|
|Origin in the UK||16th century|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||Currently there is no way of collecting data for current makers.|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
Corn dollies as a name for the craft does not appear to be widely used until the 20th century and now has been corrupted from its original meaning to include almost any shape including imported rice straw dolls with wooden bead heads. In the 19th century this form of straw work appears to have been collectively called ‘harvest tokens’ or ‘harvest trophies’ and individual pieces by their regional names.
Alex Coker a leading light in the craft stated that a corn dolly was an abstract shape and became a straw decoration when it represented an object. For this reason his book, which gives instructions for both corn dollies and straw decorations is The Craft of Straw Decoration. Another of the craft’s leading teachers, Lettice Sandford held similar views titling her first book Decorative Straw Work and her second Straw Work and Corn Dollies to accurately reflect its content.
Surviving museum examples also indicate that corn dollies or harvest trophies were originally abstract shapes or crude doll shapes made by plaiting or tying cereal crop straws (see examples at Pitt Rivers and Wardown House, Luton, museums), Made at harvest time then kept until Christmas or until the first months of the new year, the token was returned to the land through burning, or feeding to the animals or by ploughing back into the field. The idea was to return fertility to the land an ethos deeply embedded in rural folklore.
The revival in the 1950s, primarily, but not exclusively in Essex, saw farm workers developing their work into replicas of farm implements and models such as windmills. (See examples at MERL, Wardown House and Hereford Museum.) Fred Mizon rose to national prominence by making lion and unicorn figures for the Festival of Britain.
New plaits and techniques were introduced through the publication of several books in the 1960/70s. Many regional designs are shown in Minnie Lambeth’s publications. New designs were developed in the form of chandeliers, fans, crosses, umbrellas, horseshoes, seahorses, mice, hearts and many other shapes.
In the second half of the 20th century two companies, Corn Craft in Suffolk and Wedmore in Somerset employed outworkers to make for sale, including for export. Corn dolly making reached its zenith in the mid 1970s Council run evening classes and privately organised courses were widely available throughout the UK and a corn dolly maker/straw worker could be found at the many craft shows.
By this time the craft had evolved from the making of simple harvest tokens to more complex work incorporating many skills, some from the hat industry and some from other countries. The simple origins of the craft had been lost and new folk lore stories were added to the original ideas. Interestingly the stories often related to the 19th century, and earlier, even though the design was 20th century in origin.
Many practitioners recognised their work had developed and called themselves straw workers, or decorative straw workers, or straw plaiters. Some practitioners do chose to still call themselves corn dolly makers even though their skills and designs are more wide-ranging than the traditional shapes.
The straw has to be hollow-stemmed and long length. In general only the top section from seed head to first leaf node is used for plaiting. With the exception of spiral plait, joining is not normally incorporated into the plait. For this reason the plait is only made to the length of the available straws.
The preparation of the straw is specific to the different techniques and adapted to the type of straw being used. According to the technique used a suitable type, size (by length and diameter) and quality of straw has to be selected. Straw has to be damped before use.
Construction methods include:
- Plaiting by hand
- A range of interlacing techniques using tools or purely by hand some based on knotting, some on passementerie
- Tying whole straws
Plaiting in various patterns and tied work to form shapes associated with particular areas. There are some similarities between designs found in different regions and this may indicate influence from the travelling harvesting gangs who worked their way through the country following the harvest.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- All crafts evolve but there is a danger the roots, and understanding of the roots will be lost and with that there will be a loss of the original techniques. Some of these roots have already been lost or are known by only one or two people. It is a continuing conundrum how to pass on information about the roots of the craft, and to incorporate them into courses, without it being perceived as a threat by some involved in the craft.
- Shortage of raw materials is the principle concern. There are very few straw suppliers and harvest is governed by the weather. The craft depends upon the growing of old varieties of spring sown crops.
- Training is difficult to find and restricted to one/two day courses, but these are not regular and are regional.
- There are no consistent pathways to learning, or current literature. The only publications are the Guild News, publication of the Guild of Straw Craftsmen and Corn Dolly Newsletter which supplies contemporary designs and information.
- Whilst there is a demand for the products, price is always a problem. Perception of the craft with regard to its origins and longevity of the material seems to affect monetary values attached to the products.
- The work is labour intensive and when priced commercially the products are too expensive therefore it is extremely difficult to make a living.
- Not attracting sufficient new, younger workers willing to take this up as a craft to pursue to higher levels.
Craftspeople currently known
As the only formalised organisation, the Guild of Straw Craftsmen which recognises that its membership does not include all makers in the country. Since members of the Guild do not only make traditional corn dollies, and it is currently impossible to assess how many makers in the UK only make traditional corn dollies this information cannot be provided.
The following a capable of making corn dollies. Please note this list is incomplete.
- Veronica Main – HCA member, historian, consultant, maker
- Elaine Lindsay – the only known straw work company operating in the UK and provides a website, newsletter, courses, demonstrations and retail
- Heather Beeson – provides instruction and demonstrations
- Anne Dyer
- Peter Shelley
- Antony Gay
- Dorothy Seedhouse
The Guild of Straw Craftsmen offer two levels of award, ‘Craftsmen’ and ‘Master’, which include a requirement to make corn dollies.
There are local talks, workshops and demonstrations given by individuals but no other co-ordinated scheme or plan.
- Corn Dolly Newsletter
- Guild News – newsletter of Guild of Straw Craftsmen
- Journal of Ethnological Studies, ‘Folk Life’, volume 37 (1998-99) pp. 44-63.
- Main, Veronica, ‘Corn Dollies: Searching for the Seed of Truth’
Partial list of publications
- AA publications, Handbook of Country Crafts
- Coker, Alec, The Craft of Straw Decoration
- Corn Dolly Newsletter Team, A Handful of Straw
- Johnson, Doris, The Complete Book of Straw Craft and Corn Dollies
- indsay, Elaine, Easy Straw Work for Christmas
- andford, Lettice, and Davis, Philla, Decorative Straw Work
- Sandford, Lettice, Straw Work and Corn Dollies
Museums holding research collections:
- Wardown House Museum and Art Gallery, Luton
- Hereford City Museum, Hereford
- MERL, Reading