The preparation and plaiting of cereal crop straw (primarily wheat), some grasses, imported palm, paper, and wood chip into a length of strong and stable plait that can be made into a hat.
|Historic area of significance||Throughout the UK, including the Orkney and Shetland Islands during the 1800s. Most makers were in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and North Essex. They worked until the early 20th century to supply hat manufacturing factories in Dunstable, Luton and St. Albans.|
|Area currently practised||Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and less so in Shropshire. In Bedfordshire plaiting appears to be confined to Breachwood Green where local people make lengths of plait to decorate the Baptist church for Harvest Festival. It is not currently known if this is authentic plait or a corn dolly plait.|
|Origin in the UK||Exact date unknown, but it is established as a trade in Bedfordshire in the late 1600s. There are earlier references to straw hats in literature which may imply plaits were being made to produce the hats around the country but in a less organised way.|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||1|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees||1-5|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required||10 workers at professional level earning a partial income from the work and providing instruction.|
Straw plaiting to supply the hat industry was a significant, professional occupation that played a major part in providing income to rural families.
Plaiters supplied the UK’s hat manufacturing industry. Plaiting was a highly skilled craft that involved straw preparation, plaiting, finishing and winding into a hank (piece) which was often sold to a plait dealer. The lengths were usually made in 10 or 20 yard pieces.
The technique of plaiting is specific to the hat industry. A straw plait for the hat industry has a:
- Head, the pattern edge
- Body, which may have a pattern
- Foot, the edge that includes the joins.
Straw plaits were a fashionable item and there were many patterns and colourways. A plaiter had to be sufficiently skilled to often learn new plaits at short notice. Plait was made in different widths, from less than 5mm to 25mm, using different numbers of straws that were either split or whole. Although there are many mentions of straw hats and plait in earlier documents, the trade seems to have become more organised by the late 1600s. Two petitions of support for the hat industry were sent to Parliament in 1689 and 1719. The petition of 1719 claims the craft (which is assumed to include plaiting) has been practised for ‘time out of mind’ and provides employment for ‘many thousands’.
From the late 1700s, growth of the UK plaiting industry was assisted by turmoil in Europe and the Napoleonic Wars. By the early 1800s straw plaiting was attracting considerable attention as a source of employment for children and those in workhouses. The plaiters were trying to compete against narrow plait made in Italy. It became possible with the introduction of the straw splitter at this time. By the 1840s plaiters were working in all but three counties in the UK. By the 1860s it was an essential income-generating occupation for about 30,000 men, women and children in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and northwest Essex.
Changes in hat production led to the import of considerable quantities of cheap Chinese and later Japanese plait in the second half of the 1800s. While this caused a significant growth in hat manufacture thanks to the availability of cheaper imported products, the home industry of straw plaiting began a slow decline. Plaiters could not match the low prices of the imports.
Straw plaiting continued with plaiters copying new designs and colourways from Europe and the Far East. From the late 1880s there were efforts to revive the home industry. Unfortunately, the introduction of man-made fibres that could be machine-made into cheap new products brought about the end of the plaiting industry. Straw plaits and their use in hats had always been led by fashion trends and the excitement of these new products made straw plait less relevant. The last truly professional straw plaiters working for the hat industry stopped working in the 1930s, they had managed to keep working by producing plait to be made into specially commissioned hats for celebrities and the Royal Family. A few women, either elderly plaiters or those who may have watched their mothers plait continued to demonstrate and make small pieces of plait until the 1980s.
Since that time lack of written instructions for making authentic plaits has meant that the original methods have often been corrupted and absorbed into Straw Working and Corn Dolly Making which has created much confusion.
The process of hand plaiting individual pieces of straw into a single length usually approximately 20 yards (18 metres) long. The finished plait is strong, an even width and suitable for sewing into a hat shape. Within the hat industry, the term straw encompasses a range of materials: wheat and rye straw, grasses, wood chip, palm, man-made fibres and rag-based paper.
- Preparation – To make ready for plaiting. This process varies according to the type of straw.
- Bleaching and/or Dyeing – Bleaching is necessary to soften certain types of straw. It also lightens the colour of the original material.
- Splitting – The use of a small tool to cut a whole stem of cereal crop straw into narrow splints. Or, for wood chip or palm to create a piece of even width.
- Milling – To soften the splints (not whole straws) before plaiting.
- Damping – According to the type of straw damping makes the straw more flexible for plaiting.
- Plaiting – working with various numbers of pieces of straw (ends) to produce a specific plait pattern.
- Clipping – To remove the joined ends (set-ins and speels).
- Milling – To flatten the plait. Milling is only suitable for certain types of plait.
- Winding – To coil into a secure hank or piece.
In the 1800s different plait patterns were associated with specific villages (see Thomas George Austin, The Straw Trade, 1871), split straw plaits were of particular importance. Within the 19th century hat industry, the straw used was not exclusively from cereal crops. Plait was made from wood chip (chip), paper and various other imported plant fibres. Although most publications state that wheat straw was used it seems entirely probable that workers used barley, rye and grasses to create the plaits. It is probable that a plaiter was expected to be able to work with a range of materials.
In the past the straw plaiter would have been supplied with the straw ready for plaiting. When the trade was alive there was a chain of sub-crafts:
- Straw drawing
- Straw cutting
- Straw sorting
- Straw bleaching
- Straw dyeing
Now the straw hat plaiter must perform these functions.
- Straw hat sewing – this is the process of creating a hat from plait. Mostly done by hand there are a few practitioners using the traditional sewing machines.
- Hat block making – for sizing and shaping the hat
- Straw working
- Corn dolly making
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Confusion between straw plaiting techniques for the hat industry and the more widely known corn dollies and straw working.
- Limited availability of written information/good instructional material.
- Limited availability of accurate training.
- Shortage of raw materials.
- Non-availability of specialist tools.
- Whilst there is a demand for the products realistic pricing is a problem.
- The work is labour intensive and when priced commercially the products are too expensive therefore it is extremely difficult to make a living.
- Training is difficult to find: to correctly produce plait it is essential to understand and follow the correct preparation of materials and to produce a plait that is fit for purpose.
- At the time of this listing are no consistent pathways to learning, or current literature, but this will be partly resolved in 2023 with publication of a subject specialism book.
- There are no consistent pathways to learning, or current literature.
- The accuracy of demonstrations in museums depends upon the knowledge of the practitioner.
Craftspeople currently known
Straw plaiting for the hat industry was a paid occupation employing tens of thousands of men, women and children throughout the UK but for the longest period in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and north west Essex. Plaits were exported from the UK around the world, either as plait or as hats. Straw hat manufacture was a major trade. Of all the straw crafts, this is the only paid profession.
Veronica Main has since the 1980s been reviving the original methods of straw plaiting, providing demonstrations and courses. Heather Beeson demonstrates at the Chiltern Open Air Museum and provides instruction. Anne Dyer provides instruction for some types of hat plait.
Magazines – the following occasionally feature articles about straw hat plaiting
- Corn Dolly Newsletter
- Straw Craftsmen News – newsletter of Guild of Straw Craftsmen
- The Basketmakers’ Association
- The Braid Society
Partial list of publications
Publications containing some plaiting instruction, not always complete.
- A Lady, Workwomen’s Guide (1840)
- Gordon, Joleen, Handwoven Hats: A history of straw, wood and rush hats in Nova Scotia
- Johnson, Doris, The Complete Book of Straw Craft and Corn Dollies
- Kraft Garges, June, Handcrafted Straw Hats: An Early American Home Industry
- Main, Veronica, Swiss Straw Work – Techniques of a Fashion Industry
- Sandford, Lettice, and Davis, Philla, Decorative Straw Work
History of the straw-hat industry
- Austin, Thomas George, The Straw Trade, 1871
- Davis, Jean, Straw Plait
- Dony, John, A History of the Straw Hat Industry
- English Heritage, The Hat Industry of Luton and its Buildings
- Gróf, László, Children of Straw
- Inwards, Harry, Straw Hats
- Luton Museum, Luton and the Hat Industry
Museums holding research collections:
- Wardown House Museum and Art Gallery, Luton
Note: Other museums in the traditional plaiting/hat areas of south east midlands have small collections representing the trade.