Recorded: 8 August 2023
Topic: Straw plaiting
Recorded: 8 August 2023
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).
Thatch ornaments, also known as straw finials, rick finials, stack finials. Usually crafted from the thatching materials as decorative shapes, such as animals, to ornament thatched roofs.
The following estimated numbers have been gathered through the assistance 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 Straw Craftsmen however there is no means of estimating their numbers.
|Historic area of significance
|Straw Working has always been a regional craft with its roots in the countryside since practitioners originally needed to be close to the raw materials and a market for the goods
|Area currently practised
|Regional pockets around the UK.
|Origin in the UK
|Straw working in its modern form which incorporates skills and techniques from many origins has been practised since the 1950s.
|Current no. of professionals (main income)
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
(4 making thatch ornaments)
|Current no. of trainees
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
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 straw work techniques found in other countries.
During the 1960s 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 and/or oats. Barley is not normally used. The straw is usually an old variety with a long stem.
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, Switzerland, 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 exclusively those listed above.
Thatch ornaments are most frequently documented as being a simple decoration for a rick or stack. The protruding end of the inner support was finished with a bundle of hay or corn held secure with a decoratively wound length of straw rope.
It appears that over time, designs evolved as an end of harvest work occupation and recorded as being used to identify the owner of a rick or the work of thatcher. In the 1930-1950s they are found extensively throughout the UK but disappeared as soon as ricks and stacks were no longer made.
Thatched roofs have also been decorated with ornaments, either simple or more complex according to the maker. They are placed for good luck, as an identifying mark for the thatcher or at the request of the homeowner. They can be dated back to the 17th century. Some thatchers preferred to place the ornament inside the roof space for good luck and as their signature.
Most ornaments are made to represent animals but can be made in the shape of other objects.
Rick/stack ornaments were only intended to last for as long as the rick or stack stood. Makers of thatch ornaments intended them to last much longer and now cover the designs with wire mesh to protect them from the elements and bird damage.
For most forms of work, the straw must 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. Except for 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, from which some techniques are taken, 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 were 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
- Thatch ornaments
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- In past centuries the skills would have been defined as separate skills and some such as hat plaiting, marquetry, Swiss work and embroidery were income generating professions. Today these different roots are now absorbed into the one generic craft of Straw Working, or Decorative Straw Work which can be an income generating profession.
- This has created some problems as the heritage of the original techniques that form Straw Working’s roots are not being carried forward and the craft is evolving as an amalgam.
- Shortage of raw materials is the principal concern. There are very few straw suppliers and harvests are 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 the Straw Craftsmen supplying information and Corn Dolly Newsletter which supplies designs and information.
- Whilst there is a demand for the products, selling price is always a problem. Perception of the craft’s origins and of straw’s longevity seem to affect monetary values attached to the products.
- Straw Working is labour intensive and when priced commercially the products are often perceived as too expensive making it difficult to develop the skills into a business.
- The craft is not attracting sufficient new, younger workers willing to take this up as a craft to pursue to higher levels.
- Straw work has not yet comfortably adopted the strategy of other heritage skills such as basketmakers, who have makers producing modern innovative designs, also using new materials, alongside the traditional workers.
- There is a lack of makers of the specialist tools associated with production of certain aspects of Straw Working.
- Lack of awareness
- Lack of training
- Not cost effective/time constraints
There are also other international organisations used by straw workers in the UK
Craftspeople currently known
As the only formalised UK organisation the Straw Craftsmen recognises that its membership does not include all makers in the country. They are anxious to make clear that the information supplied in this questionnaire cannot be entirely accurate and are aware this list of makers is incomplete. The Straw Craftsmen and Heritage would be delighted to add more names to this category in future editions.
- Veronica Main – historian, consultant, maker, lecturer, teacher.
- Carol Partridge – maker, demonstrator, online sales and commissions, workshop leader (for adults and school groups).
- Elaine Lindsay – straw work company operating in the UK, provides a website, newsletter, courses, demonstrations and retail. Organiser of Scottish Straw Workers that has an online portal on Facebook.
- Heather Beeson – organiser of Straw Bucks and Herts Straw Workers, an online Facebook portal Straw Talk, and straw workshop leader at Chiltern Open Air Museum.
- Helen Moran, demonstrates at Beamish Open Air Museum
- Anne Dyer – provides straw work courses and is a specialist in straw marquetry.
- Dorothy Seedhouse – maker.
- Antony Gay – Treasurer and Webmaster Guild of Straw Craftsmen. Maker.
- Lucy Burrow maker/seller and organiser of the Facebook page Corn Dollies and straw work.
- Susan Burnett/Corn Crafting – sales, workshops, talks.
Specialist short courses
- Veronica Main – courses in various straw work
- Elaine Lindsay – courses in various straw work
- Heather Beeson – introductory courses in decorative straw work at Chiltern Open Air Museum, and tutor at Straw Bucks and Herts
- Susan Burnett – courses in various straw work
- Carol Partridge – workshop leader (for adults and school groups). Tutor at Sandwich
- Anne Dyer – provides straw work courses and is a specialist in straw marquetry
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.
Carol Partridge is part of a team at Sandwich Medieval Centre in Kent promoting a range of dying crafts including straw working through exhibitions, demonstrations, and workshops.
Heather Beeson is a demonstrator at Chiltern Open Air Museum, Buckinghamshire and organiser of a local group providing workshops.
Helen Moran demonstrates at Beamish Open-Air Museum and other locations in North East.
- Corn Dolly Newsletter
- Straw Craftsmen 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
- 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
- Hartley Dorothy. Made in England
- Hennell, Thomas. Change in the Farm
- Massingham, HJ. Country Relics
- Patterson, TGF. Brigid’s Crosses in County Armagh. Article in Ulster Journal of Archaeology 1945
- Staniforth, Arthur. Straw and Straw Craftsmen