Recorded: 8 August 2023
Topic: Straw plaiting
Recorded: 8 August 2023
A lithographer, a wallpaper maker and an oak bark tanner are among the recipients of the latest round of grants awarded to help safeguard some of the UK’s most endangered craft skills.
The Heritage Crafts Association (HCA), which published the third edition of its groundbreaking HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts in May, has awarded a further eight grants from its Endangered Crafts Fund, which was launched in 2019 to increase the likelihood of endangered crafts surviving into the next generation.
This round of the HCA Endangered Crafts Fund has been offered with support from the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Dulverton Trust, the Sussex Heritage Trust, Allchurches Trust and the Swire Charitable Trust. The eight successful recipients are:
- Catherine Ade, from Bristol, to run a series of workshops on different lithography techniques and continue to supply lithography plate graining services.
- Peter Ananin, from Fife, to train an apprentice in the skills and knowledge of traditional Scottish bark tanning.
- Deborah Bowness, from East Sussex, to learn traditional wallpaper making techniques through one-to-one training with a wallpaper conservationist.
- Rachel Evans, from Stoke-on-Trent, to learn the techniques of hazel basketmaking, specifically the Gower cockle basket and the whisket.
- Nikki Laird, from Edinburgh, to print a book on how to make a traditional hand sewn kilt.
- Kate Longley, from Cornwall, to maintain the skills and knowledge of withy crab and lobster pot making in the community of Gorran Haven.
- Steven Lowe, from East Sussex, to provide shoe last making courses covering heel making.
- Edie Obilaso, from London, to make hats from straw plait produced on an antique machine, and to document the craft.
These eight projects follow 27 awarded in previous rounds, covering endangered crafts such as scissor making, sail making, damask weaving, boot tree making, cockle basket making, folding knife making, neon bending, coracle making, fan making and swill basket making, coppersmithing, withy pot making, disappearing fore-edge painting, plane making, kishie basket making, flint walling, brick making, chair seating, lipwork basketry, paper making, concertina making and flute making.
As usual the fund was oversubscribed, and the HCA hopes to work with many of the unsuccessful candidates to identify other funding and support opportunities.
HCA Endangered Crafts Manager Mary Lewis said:
“For all the progress we’ve made, it will take more than just the Heritage Crafts Association to save craft skills; it will be the people who make a positive choice to learn, make and teach an endangered craft who will do that. These projects will provide future generations with opportunities that they might not otherwise have, to become productive and healthy members of our shared craft community.”
The Endangered Crafts Fund has been funded through generous donations from organisations including Garfield Weston Foundation, the Dulverton Trust, the Sussex Heritage Trust, as well as individuals who have donated sums from £5 right up to several thousands of pounds.
The HCA continues to seek further donations to save even more of Britain’s most endangered crafts from oblivion. Donations are welcome at any time – for more information visit www.heritagecrafts.org.uk/ecf.
Veronica Main from Hazelmere in Buckinghamshire has been awarded an MBE in the Queen’s New Year Honours List 2021, in recognition of a lifetime spent researching, practicing and teaching the craft of straw plaiting for the hat industry.
Veronica was nominated by the Heritage Crafts Association in this year’s New Year Honours, following 19 previously successful nominations since 2013. Last year, the charitable organisation – which was set up in 2009 to support and champion traditional craft skills – published the latest edition of its groundbreaking HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts, the first report of its kind to rank craft skills by the likelihood they will survive into the next generation.
Once an important trade in the UK, straw hat plaiting is now critically endangered on the Red List, with only a few remaining craftspeople. Veronica has made it her life’s mission to ensure that these skills are not lost, and only last week was on BBC Radio lamenting the closure of Luton hat firm Olney Headwear.
Veronica has been involved with Wardown House Museum and the Culture Trust in Luton for over 30 years – first as volunteer, then ‘Hat Plaiter in Residence’, and finally as Curator – becoming the go-to expert for the history of women’s hats and hat making. She has been a consultant on straw work to museums across the world, including the V&A and the Museum of London.
Over the years Veronica has taught many hundreds of people the skills of straw plaiting in the UK, US, Europe and Bangladesh, where she taught straw work to the women of Sreepur village, to increase their repertoire of craft skills.
Veronica is a Queen Elizabeth Scholar, Wingate Scholar, City & Guilds Gold Medallist, and member of the Guild of Straw Craftsmen and the National Association of Wheat Weavers (USA). She is a founding member of the British Hat Guild, a group of 33 professional milliners at the top of their game, each selected for their highly individual contribution to millinery. In 2003, she published Swiss Straw Work, a comprehensive guide to straw plaiting and other techniques that were common in Switzerland and across Europe.
Veronica continues to innovate and find new ways to share her knowledge of straw hat plaiting. Concerned that skills and knowledge could be imminently lost, she has created a website to share her knowledge and has embraced social media as a tool to disseminate her skills.
HCA Operations Manager Daniel Carpenter said:
“Often it is only in retrospect that we realise that particular craft skills have survived purely thanks to a few dedicated individuals, working tirelessly to safeguard the future of our intangible heritage so that future generations can use them as a basis for innovation, industry, connection and wellbeing. Veronica is a shining example of this and we are delighted that we have been able to recognise her skill and commitment through this successful MBE nomination, putting her up there among other great luminaries of public life.”
The HCA encourages anyone who supports the continuation of traditional craft skills, whether or not they are makers themselves, to become HCA members. We have set up an Endangered Crafts Fund to provide small grants to projects that increase the likelihood of endangered craft skills surviving into the next generation, and are currently seeking donations to save more of Britain’s most endangered crafts from oblivion.
Traditional British hat making skills have suffered a major hit with the announcement of the closure of historic firm Olney Headwear Ltd, makers of the iconic Peaky Blinders hats.
On Monday the company – which has produced straw boaters, panamas, fabric hats and caps since 1914 – left its factory at 106 Old Bedford Road to make way for housing developers to build 31 apartments.
Despite overseas competition leading it to focus on more artisanal production such as the hats for the Peaky Blinders TV programme, Olney was a viable company until COVID-19 saw the closure of most of its retail network. As recently as September the company announced that it would be relocating to a new site, a prospect that has now evaporated. Its termination means the end of traditional straw boater making in the UK and the end of commercially-made pattern-piece caps and hats in Luton, as well as the loss of 25 jobs and the skills that went with them.
The traditional boater has a double brim and is blocked twice, the second time on a specialist machine. Some of the Olney machines have been passed to other companies and individuals, with Culture Trust Luton Museums acquiring the iconic Brochier boater blocking machine.
As well as making Peaky Blinders caps, the company also made the famous ‘Sherlock Holmes’ deerstalker hat, and supplied hats to private schools including Eton and Harrow. The closure is bound to have knock-on effects on other Luton hat companies and allied trades, who looked to Olney as the strong and stable industry core. The town is home to the last large commercial hat block maker and the last commercial bleacher and dyer.
On hearing of the closure, members of the hat making trade are calling on the local Luton Borough Council to support and assist the remaining companies.
Daniel Carpenter, Heritage Crafts Association Operations Manager said:
“While our first thoughts are with the workers who have lost their livelihoods, as the national charity for the safeguarding of craft skills we are also concerned with the loss of an important part of our shared intangible cultural heritage: their embodied knowledge and skills. Whilst it is good that some of the machines has been saved, unused they become little more than relics of cultural loss. Finally, but not insignificantly, we also think of future generations whose repository of craft skill will be diminished as a result.”
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)
|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
|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.