The making of decorative and functional products from straw, incorporating a range of techniques originally used in hat making, corn dollies, straw marquetry and other crafts (see corn dolly making).
The following estimated numbers have been gathered through the assistance of the Guild of 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 the Guild however there is no means of estimating their numbers.
|Historic area of significance|
|Area currently practised|
|Origin in the UK||Prehistoric, though straw work in its modern form which incorporates skills and techniques from many roots was practised from the 1950s.|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||1-5|
|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|
Modern straw work has developed from techniques originally found in straw plaiting, for the hat industry, corn dollies and straw marquetry. It has also incorporated techniques found in other countries. During the 1960 and 1970s, various prominent workers around the country introduced new designs and raised the craft’s profile through their books and media interest. There was easy access to courses through local authority and private courses which enabled learning and allowed more people to enter the craft.
Straw work is normally produced using a cereal crop straw: most commonly wheat, but sometimes rye or oats. Barley is not normally used. In the 1980s a group of straw workers travelled to Switzerland to learn more about the techniques and patterns which had been used in the Swiss hat industry. These techniques were incorporated into the repertoire of many workers.
International exchanges in the late 1990s early 2000s led to new techniques and designs coming into the UK from the USA, The Netherlands, Hungary, Serbia, Belarus, Ukraine. Workers from other countries have held workshops in the UK, introducing their traditional ways of working and their designs. Today a design may incorporate marquetry, plaiting, tied work, folded work, split straw work and embroidery using straw as the thread.
Today workers, in general, learn and use a range of skills to produce copies of existing designs or to create new designs. The designs and new techniques are now sourced from other countries including, but not only those listed above.
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. The second joint may be used for marquetry. 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. In contrast straw plaiting for the hat industry used short lengths of prepared straws and regular joining was part of the process.
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. Straw may be bleached or dyed using a number of methods.
Construction methods include:
- plaiting by hand, with whole or split straws
- a range of interlacing techniques using tools or purely by hand some based on knotting, some on passementerie
- tying whole or split straws
- coiling groups of straws into shape
- splitting straws to produce flat sheets, or to cover sheets which are then cut up to create marquetry/parquetry or figurative designs.
- straw embroidery
- straw threads
Swiss straw work techniques are incorporated into the repertoire of makers but as the name implies the techniques are not traditionally found in the UK.
Historically straw work covers a range of skills which draws from a wide range of local forms.
- Hat plaiting
- Corn dolly making
- Straw marquetry
- Straw rope making
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- The craft as practiced today has evolved from different roots and the techniques and designs have been absorbed into the one generic craft of straw work. The problem with this is that the heritage of the original crafts is not being carried forward and the craft is evolving into an amalgam rather than the original roots being encouraged.
- 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 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.
- the craft is not attracting sufficient new, younger workers willing to take this up as a craft to pursue to higher levels.
- There is a lack of makers of the specialist tools associated with production of certain branches of the work.
- Straw work has not adopted the strategy of basketmakers who have makers producing modern innovative designs (also using new materials) alongside the traditional.
There are also other international organisations used by straw workers in the UK
Craftspeople currently known
As the only formalised organisation, the Guild of Straw Craftsmen recognises that its membership does not include all makers in the country. They are anxious to make clear that the figures supplied in this questionnaire cannot be accurate. Within the time scale of this questionnaire the Guild were not able to consent to the inclusion of names of main players in straw work for fear of unintentionally excluding some. Permission has been obtained from those whose names are included, but please note the 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 – provides courses and specialist in straw marquetry
- Peter Shelley – President of Guild of Straw Craftsmen and Editorial Team Corn Dolly Newsletter
- Dorothy Seedhouse – Secretary, Guild of Straw Craftsmen, Editorial Team Corn Dolly Newsletter
- Antony Gay – Treasurer and Webmaster Guild of Straw Craftsmen
There was a City and Guilds qualification available at two levels but it was stopped by that organisation due to lack of take-up and restructuring of their offer. With the loss of the City and Guilds courses there is no formal progression to learning. At Westhope College, Shropshire, Anne Dyer will arrange a progressive learning course upon request, otherwise there are one-day courses offered in their schedule of classes.
There are local talks, workshops and demonstrations given by individuals but no 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
- Dyer, Anne, The Gleam of Straw: The Craft of Straw Marquetry
- Fitch, Barbara, Decorative Straw Craft
- Corn Dolly Newsletter Team, A Handful of Straw
- Johnson, Doris, The Complete Book of Straw Craft and Corn Dollies
- Lindsay, Elaine, Making Straw Flowers
- Lindsay, Elaine, Easy Straw Work for Christmas
- Gróf, László, Children of Straw
- Sandford, Lettice, and Davis, Philla, Decorative Straw Work
- Sandford, Lettice, Straw Work and Corn Dollies
- Croucher, Lina, Straw Mosaics
- Davies, Jean, Shire Album 78. Straw Plait
- Shelley, Peter, An Introduction to Swiss Straw Work
- Shelley, Peter, Straw Marquetry for Beginners
- Main, Veronica, Swiss Straw Work – Techniques of a Fashion Industry
Museums holding research collections:
- Wardown House Museum and Art Gallery, Luton
- Peterborough City Museum, Peterborough
- Hereford City Museum, Hereford
- MERL, Reading
- Portsmouth City Museum, Portsmouth
- Lady Lever Collection, Liverpool
- Victoria and Albert Museum, London