The preparation and plaiting of cereal crop straw (primarily wheat) and some grasses 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. The bulk of makers in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and North Essex until the early 20th century.|
|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 established as a trade craft in Bedfordshire in the late 1600s and 1700s. However, there are earlier references to straw hats in literature which may imply plaits were being made to produce the hats.|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||1-5|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees||0|
|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.|
This was a most significant, professional occupation playing a major part in rural history. In the 1840s plaiters were working in all but three counties in the UK. By the 1860s it was an income-generating occupation for about 30,000 men, women and children in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and northwest Essex. Plaiting was a highly skilled profession that involved preparing the straw and making a variety of types of plait to fulfil commercial orders.
The last truly professional straw plaiters, working for the hat industry stopped working in the 1930s although in some villages where plaiting had generated income for the families, 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 meant that the original methods have sometimes been corrupted. Their incorporation into corn dolly making has been a significant factor in this as the corrupted versions are often the only types made.
Straw plaits were a fashionable item and there were many patterns and colourways. A plaiter had to be sufficiently skilled to learn new plaits often at short notice. Plait was made to different widths, from 5mm to 25mm, using different numbers of straws which could be split or used whole. The technique of plaiting was specific to the hat industry as the long lengths of plait (usually made in 5, 10 or 20 yard pieces) had to be strong yet lightweight, capable of being sewn into the shape of a hat and made at speed. A straw plait for the hat industry has a head, the pattern edge, a foot, the edge that includes the joins and the body which may have a pattern.
The import of considerable quantities of cheap Chinese and later Japanese plait in the second half of the 1800s caused the home industry to begin a slow decline as plaiters could not match the low prices of the imports. Whilst the plaiters suffered decline the manufacturing industry developed and grew thanks to the availability of cheap products.
- 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. Due to the short length of straw regular joining is an important element of the technique.
- Straw has to be damped before use. Straw may be bleached or dyed using a number of methods.
- Plaiting by hand, with whole or split straws
Within the 19th century hat industry the straw used was not exclusively from cereal crops; the plait could be 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. In the 1800s different patterns were associated with specific villages (see Thomas George Austin, The Straw Trade, 1871); split straw plaits were of particular importance.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- 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.
- There are no consistent pathways to learning, or current literature.
- The accuracy of demonstrations in museums depends upon the knowledge of the practitioner.
- 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.
- 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.
- Guild of Straw Craftsmen
- Corn Dolly Newsletter
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 tried to revive the original methods of straw plaiting, providing demonstrations, courses and supplied information when possible. Heather Beeson demonstrates at the Chiltern Open Air Museum and provides instruction. Anne Dyer provides instruction for some types of hat plait.
- Corn Dolly Newsletter
- Guild News – newsletter of Guild of Straw Craftsmen
Partial list of publications
- Johnson, Doris, The Complete Book of Straw Craft and Corn Dollies
- Gróf, László, Children of Straw
- Sandford, Lettice, and Davis, Philla, Decorative Straw Work
- Main, Veronica, Swiss Straw Work – Techniques of a Fashion Industry
Museums holding research collections
- Wardown House Museum and Art Gallery, Luton