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Home > Craft Topics > Craft Introductions > Strawwork

The Craft of Straw Work

Working with StrawStraw Work Introduction

Straw is an incredibly versatile material traditionally used to make hats, jewellery, intricate braids, wall displays, and of course corn doilies.  Modern work draws together these diverse techniques and uses them in exciting new ways.

Origins of Straw Craft

 

The ritual of making an image of the harvest goddess can be traced back 7000 years. Where cereal crops were harvested, the goddess would be made of straw, making this one of the earliest forms of straw work. From an effigy, the figure evolved into a wealth of abstract shapes, always incorporating ears of grain. Many include a straw cage to provide a resting place for the spirit of the harvest over the winter months. This universal practise was usually carried out by the menfolk, with the many patterns being passed down from generation to generation.  

 

More practical uses for straw were developed. Lengths of plaited straw were found to be hard wearing and pliable – perfect for making hats. Straw hats are still made by hand in the Far East, Mexico and South America, but the tradition has almost died out elsewhere.

Spinning strands of straw gave a remarkably strong and pliable thread. This was woven into braids for edging gowns and accessories, knotted into intricate doilies and twisted into delicate ornaments.

 

Straw Work Basic techniques

 

Most of the equipment needed for straw work can be found around the house, making this a cheap and easily accessible craft.

Straw is the major expense. This has to be grown specifically for the craft and top quality straw can be difficult to find. Any dried cereal plant can be defined as straw; wheat, rye and oats are the most common cereals used. Buy straw at harvest time and store it in an airy, mouse free and damp proof area.  

 

Other items include: small, pointed scissors for trimming the straw; button thread and linen or crochet cotton grade 10, for tying the stalks together; troughs for soaking the straw.

A special wheel is needed for spinning the straw into threads for Swiss straw threadwork.  

 

Planning - Whether making a hat plait, a corn dolly, figures, wall piece or harvest goddess, the design must be well planned and the straw selected with care. Original designs demand a great deal of preparation. Once a subject has been chosen, the craftsperson has to determine the best way to interpret it in straw; what plaits and decorative pieces to use; what type and size of straw; how to link the pieces.  

 

The choice of straw is crucial to the finished piece. In a similar way to embroidery threads, each variety of straw has its own characteristics which suit a particular piece of work. For example, if you plan to make a sea shell, choose a crisp, shiny straw that will imitate the real life smooth surface of a shell. By contrast, to make a flower which has a soft, velvety texture, a matt straw will be called for, as this gives a plait with less definition. It is only through discussion and experience that the straw worker discovers the qualities of the different varieties.

Once bought, the straws must be individually sorted and carefully graded according to colour and the thickness of the stalk. This ensures an even colour and size in the finished piece.  

 

Plaits – Plaits are the basis of the majority of straw work. They are divided into three categories: flat plaits, which include hat plaits and are two dimensional; and two styles of three dimensional plaits, round and spiral. Any number of straws can be used, from two to over thirty. This offers the craftsperson a myriad of plait patterns and a huge range of textures, shapes and effects to draw upon.

The maker gradually builds up a repertoire of plaits and learns to discern which plaits will harmonise on a piece of work. For example, a two plait (using two straws) and a spiral will combine well in the one piece because both are three dimensional, whereas a spiral teamed with a flat plait will look unbalanced.  

 

Plaiting Straw – To make the straw soft enough to bend without cracking, it must be soaked flat in warm water. The necessary number of damp straws are gathered together and tied together at the tip end (the seed head end) using thread, with a clove hitch knot.

The straw workers aim is to produce a perfect, neat, symmetrical shape, evenly worked with no visible straw joins. With speed and great dexterity, fingers fold the stalks over, round and back on each other, according to the pattern. The worker must resist the temptation to plait to the end of the straw – as soon as a bend looks untidy, or the straw discolours or cracks, a new one must be added.  

 

On a spiral plait this is done by putting the tip end of a new straw inside the butt (bottom end of the straw) of the one in use. If the straws have been properly graded, they should give the impression of one continuous straw. The join must be positioned at a bend, not long a bar of the spiral, to ensure it is invisible. With flat or round plaits, the new straw is laid on top of the straw in use at the moment it is to be plaited, so it is held in place by the overlapping straw. Any ends are trimmed close with small, sharp pointed scissors. At the end of a plait the straws are again tied with a clove hitch and trimmed.  

 

Swiss straw threadwork – Rye is the best straw or Swiss threadwork as it is extremely strong. It must be soaked thoroughly to make it soft enough to use. Each stalk is split lengthways using an implement called a splitter (a narrow spindle with small blades jutting out) which is pushed down the hollow of the straw. The stalk may be split into anything from two to fifteen pieces, depending on the thickness of thread required. The pieces, called splints, are passed through rollers to compress and make them pliable.  

 

The mechanism used to spin the thread consists of two pieces; a 12 inch diameter wheel drives round two hooks, and a weighted line. These are clamped to a table, facing each other. A splint is caught in each of the hooks. The two splints are held apart between the thumb and forefinger of one hand while the other steadily turns the wheel. As the hooks turn, each splint twists over on itself. Once both splints are twisted, they are attached to the weight line. The two splints are then twisted together. A finger held between the two strands controls the amount and evenness of the twist in the thread by steadily moving down the length, while the other hand continues to turn the wheel. It takes great skill to ensure the splints are kept at the right tension and the twists are even.

The ends are unhooked and the thread is ready for use. Batches of threads are spun at the same time to make sure there are plenty to use.  

 

Using the threads – The threads can be used in many ways, often drawing on techniques from other crafts such as macramé, leatherwork and braiding.

Delicate flowers are a favourite motif. These are made by weaving threads around candlewicking needles stuck into cork. The length of woven threads are then pushed off the needles, drawing the ends of the threads down through the loops. When all the loops have been slipped off the needles, the ends are pulled tight, gathering the loops on the inner side and splaying them out on the outside into petals.

 

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