Corn dolly making
The making of symbolic items from straw, originally associated with harvest customs and known as ‘corn dollies’, ‘harvest tokens’ or ‘harvest trophies’. Made as a harvest or farming past-time rather than a trade these traditions were deeply rooted into rural life.. (See also Straw Working)
|Historic area of significance||Throughout the UK with various regions having their own traditions historically associated with harvest home and the harvest supper (Largess or Largess or Horky Largess). There are also regional associations with other times in the farming year.|
|Area currently practised||Regional pockets throughout the UK.
In Cornwall the Ceremony of Crying the Nek is still practiced at the end of harvest by the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies.
|Origin in the UK||The harvest home and associated Harvest Maiden is documented in Windsor, Berkshire in the late 1500s, but regional traditions probably pre-date this reference.|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||0|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
The following estimated numbers have been gathered through the assistance of the Straw Craftsmen which is the only known organised group. It is known and recognised there are other makers throughout the UK who do not belong to Straw Craftsmen however there is no means of estimating their numbers.
|Current no. of trainees||0|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
Corn dolly makers are reporting an increased interest in corn dolly making over the past few years so numbers of leisure makers have increased.
The making of a figure to represent the spirit, goddess, or the harvest maiden from a sheaf can be dated back to the 1500s and may have been practised in earlier centuries. Celebration at the end of harvest is worldwide and not only related to the end of cereal crop harvests.
In the 1600s to 1800s the designs developed, apparently becoming more associated with end of harvest, the harvest home and harvest supper. Research documents suggest there was a range of stories and shapes made within the regions. The movement by harvest labourers as harvesting progressed through different regions may have led to the craft’s spread.
The name ‘corn dollies’ does not appear to be widely used until the 20th century. In the 19th century they appear to have been collectively called ‘harvest tokens’ or ‘harvest trophies’ and individually by their regional names which was a more common practice.
It seems probable that the original farm workers adopted techniques practised by the straw plaiters working for the hat industry and from copying other decorative techniques from rope making and knotting. The harvest token was usually made quickly and finished then decorated with available materials.
Harvest token/corn dolly making was largely a rural activity to celebrate the end of harvest. By the 1950-60s it appears to be pursued by a few to generate additional income. We do not know the number of workers or extent of the craft at that time.
Although in the early 20th century there were corn dolly makers around the country, it was in the mid 20th century that interest in corn dolly making expanded, principally in Essex with the making of the lion and unicorn figures for the Festival of Britain. These figures were made by Fred Mizon. The figures were widely described as corn dollies, they were large sculptural structures made from spiral straw plait.
It should be noted that in the mid 1950s there were farm labourers in other parts of the country also making and often selling their straw work and calling them corn dollies. It was at this point that the earlier simple abstract shapes developed into representative objects such as windmills, anchors, umbrellas, horseshoes, seahorses.
The number of workers grew and publications began to appear, classes started and the numbers making corn dollies grew, probably peaking in the 1980s.
In the second half of the 20th century there were companies employing outworkers to make a variety of straw objects for sale, including for export. Corn Craft in Suffolk and Wedmore House in Somerset were the principal companies however, they also mixed decorative straw work with corn dollies within their product offer.
New designs, with new folk lore stories were introduced and published in books and magazines. With the growth of the craft, and general interest created by the teachers and authors, designs began to include skills originally found in the other branches of straw work.
It is fair to say that within exponents of Corn Dolly Making they will be divided in discussion about what constitutes a corn dolly, but unless there is a separation and awareness of these traditional harvest tokens their heritage will be lost.
It should be noted that some original designs were worked with the whole length of cut straw, and one design was made using the standing (uncut) whole length. With their refinement workers generally consider that 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. Originally corn dollies were made with available straws and evidence suggests minimal sorting and selection of straws. Today, 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
Styles and variations can be found in publications such as Minnie Lambeth, A Golden Dolly, various Folk Lore book and journals and Journal of Ethnological Studies, Folk Life. Other Folk Life publications and the Museum of British Folk Lore also hold information.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- It is a continuing conundrum how to pass on information into a craft that is dominated by decorative straw work and the common public perception is to call all work with straw corn dollies.
- The making of a token to celebrate the end of harvest is deeply rooted in rural culture. All crafts evolve but there is a real danger the roots and understanding will be lost. Consequently, there will be a loss of the original techniques and designs.
- Many of these roots have already been lost or are known by only one or two people. Without highlighting Corn Dolly making as a separate skill awareness will continue to remain at a low level and loss of knowledge and information will continue.
- Shortage of raw materials is a major 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 Straw Craftsmen News, publication of Straw Craftsmen and Corn Dolly Newsletter which also 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.
- There has been interest by mixed media artists and sculptors who have used designs in innovative ways.
Craftspeople currently known
The following a capable of making corn dollies. Please note this list is incomplete.
- Veronica Main
- Elaine Lindsay
- Carol Partridge
- Heather Beeson
- Penny Maltby
- Claire Northover
- Janine O’Connor
- Helen Moran
- Anne Dyer
- Antony Gay
The 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.
Makers are reporting an increase in the levels of interest in corn dollies and straw craft including an increase in people wanting to participate in workshops.
An annual Strawfest is held at which members can share their skills and expertise and occasionally other meetings are organised for members and the general public.
- Guild of Straw Craftsmen http://www.strawcraftsmen.co.uk/
- Hat Plait http://www.hatplait.co.uk
- MERL https://merl.reading.ac.uk/collections/coker-alec-straw-dolly/
- Museum of British Folklore http://www.museumofbritishfolklore.com
- Pitt Rivers https://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/collections-online
- Corn Dolly Newsletter
- Guild News – newsletter of Guild of Straw Craftsmen
- Various papers in Folk Lore and Folk Life Journals
- 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
- Corn Dolly Newsletter Team, A Handful of Straw
- Johnson, Doris, The Complete Book of Straw Craft and Corn Dollies
- White, Emmie, Making Corn Dollies A Guide for Beginners
- White, Emmie, Corn Dollies from the start
- Hutton Ronald, The Stations of the Sun
- Sandford, Lettice, and Davis, Philla, Decorative Straw Work
- Sandford, Lettice, Straw Work and Corn Dollies
- Lambeth, Minnie, Shire Publication Discovering Corn Dollies
- Lambeth, Minnie, The Golden Dolly the Art, Mystery and History of Corn Dollies Through the Ages describing all types and how to make them
- Reid, Stephen J, The Art of Weaving Corn Dollies
- Women’s Institute, Corn Dollies a WI Home Skills guide to the craft behind the legend
- Women’s Institute, Corn Dollies and how to make them. Book one
- Women’s Institute, Corn Dollies and how to make them. Book two
Museums holding research collections:
- Museum of English Rural Life, Reading
- Wardown House Museum and Art Gallery, Luton
- Pitt Rivers, Oxford
- Great Bardfield Museum. Essex
- Compton Verney, Warwickshire
- St Fagan’s, Cardiff