Chiltern Straw Plaiters

Straw Plaiting gained popularity in Britain. It attributes its introduction to none other than Mary, Queen of Scots, who whilst travelling in Lorraine, noticed women & children ‘employed in the Plaiting and making of Straw Hats, and in the Districts where this light and pleasant Handicraft was practised, the Peasantry were much better off.A fatigued Mrs Pepys, after promenading around the 42-acre Garden at Hatfield Park one Summer’s day in 1667 was pleased to try a Straw Hat as a novelty – “Being come back, and weary with the walk, for as I made it, it was pretty long, being come back to our Inne, there the women had pleasure in putting on some Straw Hats, which are much worn in this Country, and did become them mightily, but especially my Wife .”
By 1724 straw Plaiting had gained a Footfall in Britain, becoming particularly popular in Bedfordshire & Hertfordshire. The Plaited Straw was mainly used in the construction of Hats & Bonnets.  At this time, however, the process for constructing the Plaits was far from ideal, because ‘the contrivances for the Splitting of Straw were of a clumsy character.’  This changed, when two French Prisoners at Yoxley Barracks, near Stilton, made the 1st Straw-splitter sometime between 1803 and 1806, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars. This innovation heralded the golden age of straw plaiting.  At the 1851 Great Exhibition ‘the Skill of the Straw Plaiter was fully shown.’ But at the time of great Industrial change, Straw Plaiting was still purely domestic in character, ‘carried on the in the Cottages of Agricultural Labourers of the 3 Counties of Beds, Hertfordshire, and Buckinghamshire, and portions of Essex & Suffolk. The Plaiters are generally the wives & children of the Labourers: a few are men.’  The unmarried women, ‘who are skilful & quick, earn the most, but some married women contrive to do as well.’  It is estimates that the number of women & young boys (under the age of 8-yrs) engaged in Plaiting to be around 50,000. This Workforce was reputed to be able to produce 200M-yds of Plaits a year, which were then Shipped to Canada, Australia, the West Indies, India, Brazil & Europe.

However, this Prosperity was not to last. Mechanisation, as well as cheaper supplies from Abroad, meant that by the 1890s many Straw-Plaiters, were settling with ‘starvation wages:’ The truth of the matter is that in these days of agricultural depression the women and children will gladly wear out their lives to earn some 2 or 3 shillings a week to eke out their husband’s or their father’s slender income; perhaps to pay the Cottage rent. It is better to Plait than to do nothing, to earn a few shillings than to starve, to bend to the Sweater’s Yoke than to plead for admission at the Workhouse Gates. In 1895 politician Viscount Peel visited a female Straw-plaiter, whose toil prompted him to exclaim: ‘that seemed a hard lot to Labour, to work, for such a pittance – and to work so hard.’ Indeed, the physical practice of Straw-Plaiting sounds rather unpleasant, and appears, most alarmingly to risk tooth-loss:
That the Trade is disagreeable no one can gain sway. The continual passing of the Straw through the mouth scratches the lips, and leaves a nasty taste in the palate. Moreover the action of the Sulphur fumes with which the Straws are cleansed, and the friction of the sharp-edged Straw on the Enamel of the Teeth, hasten decay. Few Straw-Plaiters have sound front Teeth, except of course the little children, and in the case of adults they are usually worn right away.

So whilst by the early 20thC Straw Plaiting had faded into a bygone rural age, in the 1970s it was enjoying something of a resurgence. In 1973 the Belfast Telegraph features one David J Patterson, of Clontnacally, Carryduff, ‘who still makes Plaits for Wall Decorations, Lovers’ Knots & Buttonhole Badges.’

Once a mainstay of rural life, a necessary supplement to Income, Straw-plaiting risked totally fading away, forgotten. However, it is fascinating to discover its resurgence through the ages and hopefully this 1970s passion for plaiting endured to the present day.

The origins of Plaiting can be traced back a 1,000 years to when Harvest Labourers wore Braids of Straw on their Heads.  Then, in around 1600, Plaiters from Lorraine came to Luton and reputedly introduced methods of Straw Plaiting to the area.  There are a number of references to the making & wearing of Straw Hats in the 17thC.  Hockley of Ware, Herts taught the Poor in many Parishes how to make Straw Hats. 

In 1689, an Act of Parliament was proposed which included ‘enjoining the wearing of the Woollen Manufactures of this Kingdom at certain Times of the Year.’   Immediately there was an angry response, ‘Upon reading the Petition of divers of the Inhabitants (about 14,000) of the Counties of Bedford, Bucks & Hertford, who get their Livings by making Straw Hats; praying, to be heard’. Some 30-yrs later, folk from a far larger area protested against the importing of Straw Hats from Tuscany (which were of better quality than English Product).

FashionStrawHat

By 1735, the Craft was even more popular – “Several 1,000 Plaiters found profitable employment in Bedfordshire & Hertfordshire.
It was found  at (Hemel) Hempsted that £200 a week has been turn’d in a Market Day in Straw Hats only, which Manufacture has thrived in those parts for over 100-yrs.  By the middle of the 18thC, a familiar sight was ‘a Farmer’s wife or another small personage’s wife clad on Sundays like a Lady of quality…When they go out they always wear Straw hats which they have made from Wheat Straw and are pretty enough’.  Straw Hats were High Fashion.  The importing of French Straw Hats was a casualty of the Napoleonic Wars and high Import Duties, although the expert handiwork of French Prisoners of War languishing in British Gaols was highly prized. Short supply of Straw Hats encouraged English Producers to intensify their efforts to cultivate Strains of Plaiting Straw.  English-grown Straws like Red Lamas, Rivet & Golden Drop were developed specifically for the Plait Trade. These strains thrived on the Chiltern Fields of Chalk.  Their Straw was curiously ‘valued in the inverse ratio of the vigour of the plant’ – the best Straw came from the poorest areas – and contained enough silico to be strong, but not brittle.
The Straw of certain varieties of Wheat cultivated in that area is, in favourable Seasons, possessed of a fine bright colour and due to tenacity & strength.  The Straw is cut as in ordinary Harvesting, but is allowed to dry in the sun, before binding.  Subsequently Straws are selected from the Sheaves, and of these the pipes of the 2 upper joints are taken for Plaiting.  The pipes are assorted into sizes by passing them through graduated openings in a grilled wireframe, and those of good colour are bleached by the fumes of Sulphur.  Spotted & discoloured Straws are dyed either in pipe or in Plait. The Plaiters work up the material in a damp state, either into whole Straw or split Straw Plaits.  Split Straws are prepared with the aid of a small instrument having a projecting point which enters the Straw Pipe, and from which radiate the number of knife-edged cutters into which the Straw is to be split.  The Straws were put through a small mangle to flatten them. They were then Braided to produce a woven strip which was sold on to the makers of Hats, Baskets and other Wares.  The Plaiting was carried out by women & children who were taught the skills in Plait Schools. At its peak in the early 19thC a woman could earn more by Plaiting than a man could earn on the Land.

StrawDrawer

Wheat for Straw Plaiting was carefully Reaped – and a little earlier than the rest of the Harvest. After the cut, suitable Straws for Plaiting were selected by a Drawer. At Harpenden, Herts, ‘…men from the Village went from Farm to Farm to Draw Straw, being very expert, quick & clever…these Straw Drawers as a rule were also Expert Thatchers’.  Only perfect samples that were not diseased or rain-spattered were chosen. Straws were drawn from between the Drawer’s Legs and then tied together (inset left).  After the Ears were lopped off, the resulting 56-lb Bundles were sold to Plait Dealers who cut the Straw into useable lengths and then sorted into different thicknesses using a wooden Trough with Metal Tubes (shown below).

SortingTrough

WomanPlaiter

The Plaiter worked by interweaving 3 Straws in front of her hands and allowing the finished Braid to drop towards the Body. A bundle of moistened straws were pinned under her left armpit. As she worked, she would bend her head and pull out one or 2 new Straws, moistening them with saliva and then storing them on the sides of her mouth ready to be Plaited.  The corner of her lips might be scarred or coloured as a result.  Teeth might rot.  It was said, ‘Never kiss a Plaiter!’ 
Like casting-on Knitting, starting the Plait was demanding, as was adding new Splits – if a Plait was wide, replacing Straws was almost continuous. Plaiters were taught to use their thumb & 2nd finger, using their Forefinger to turn the Splint. 
As they were braided, plaits were measured by holding out work – if it stretched from chin to fingertips, it was approximately a yard long. The lengths were coiled over their left arm. Another more accurate guide of length were notches were cut in the Cottage Mantelpieces at 9, 18-ins & a Yard.  Work was sold in multiples or fractions of a ‘score’ (i.e. 20-yds).

The Plait was now ready for the ‘Brimstone Boxes’.  These were large, but light – an old fashioned Clothes Box was ideal.  The Plait was placed in the middle of the Box leaving a clear space in the middle. Then, a Saucer or Tin Lid with a small live coal was placed in the space and a piece of Brimstone (Sulpher) was balanced on the Coal for fumigating or ‘ steaming’. Thus, the Plait was bleached, giving it a brighter appearance.  Before being sold, the plait was again dampened & pressed by passing it through a Plait Mill. Finally it was wound around a Board 18-ins wide.

There were 3-Types of Straw used for Plait:
Wholestraw; split plait made from single splints and double/improved plait made from two splints.
There were also a Trio of plait patterns:
1. Plain Flat Plait – that was weaved like a pigtail. This used between 3 & 20 ends, but was usually of 7 ends – 3 to the left, 4 to the right. The right-hand end was twisted under the end next to it and over the next 2. Then, the left- hand end was similarly braided and the sequence begins again. A flat edge & taut, uniform work were prerequisites for an acceptable Plait. There were varieties of Plain Flat Plait.
2.  Rustic or Pearl Plait  – when only 4 ends were used and they were folded around each other at an angle of 60°, thus forming a hexagon pattern. As it was simple to execute, children often made this pattern while chanting,
Criss-cross patch and then a twirl,  Twist it back for English Pearl’
3. Brilliant Plait was only made from single Splints and because only the polished face of the Straw was presented, the effect was Shining or ‘Brilliant’. The Straw was passed only from right to left with each right Straw laid on its side and passing alternately before & behind the remaining flat Splints until it reached the end of the Row when it was twisted to lay Flat. This was the most difficult pattern to master – especially Setting in new Splints.

ExamplesOfPlait

By the late 1700s, at the Plait Schools the children learnt a Rhyme: “Over one, under two, pull it tight and that will do.”  This was the Pattern for Straw Plaiting and it became a source of Income.  The Straw Plaiters were less well educated; few could write their own names but they were taught to count up to 20, a score.  The Plaits were measured ready for Market.  Straw Plaiters were not tied to one Agent but sold to any Agent who worked as a go-between for the Hat Makers of Luton. The nearer to Luton, the more popular was this Cottage Industry.

The Sellers could walk to the Agents at the Market but this meant that they had no time for Domestic Work which often became a co-operative effort between neighbours.  The Girls making the Plaits ran the Straw through their mouths to dampen it and thus got Sores from the sharp edges or the Sulphur or Urine used in treating the Straw.  Straw was imported from Italy so the work was not Seasonal, restricted to our own Harvests.  It was said that Lacemakers had Sweet lips and Straw Plaiters had Sore lips. Whole stems of Straw made thick, chunky Hats when sewn together.  To make finer Plaits a Straw Splitter was invented, in Chalfont St Giles.  The Straws, split into 6 Strips made a much finer Plait.

Straw in the Aylesbury Vale was coloured using local Aylesbury Prune Juice, Urine & Alum.  Black Straw was fashionable and it was sometimes used to make patterns around the Brim.  Piping edging, an Amersham speciality, was made by winding Straw round a Whalebone Mould.  Purl edged Plait was another local speciality and Mrs Shrimpton, an Amersham Straw & Lace Bonnet Maker, could copy the London Bonnets of the Ladies from Shardeloes House.   The men who had learned to Plait as children made simple Rustic Plait.  They were not as skilled as their wives but they could still supplement their low Agricultural wages.  The Plaiting was carried out by women & children who were taught the skills in Plait Schools. At its peak in the early 19thC a woman could earn more by Plaiting than a man could earn on the Land. There was concern that the Industry led to dissolution & idleness in the menfolk.  This Cottage Industry died out when competition from China & Japan started about 1900. This cheap Plait was imported to Luton and the more expensive Local Plaiting could not compete.

Amongst a Display of Crafts were 2 small Chairs.  One seat was woven Rushes and the other was Cane. The Rushes were prepared by soaking them in the Village’s dirty Horse Pond. The Rush Seats for the Chairs, mainly for the Church, were made by the men because the work was so dirty.  The women did the Caning, often sitting on the Doorstep because of the better light.  The more complex the Pattern the higher the piece rate.  The children were also involved, they collected the Chair Seats and delivered the finished articles. There were Chairmakers in Whielden Street, Amersham in the 1820s and the Hatch Family worked there from 1845 until the 1920s.

A Plaiter usually bought their Plaiting Straws once a week and although the Straws were sold in bundles sorted to the same size, the Plaiter never knew what the size would be. What the Plaiter did know was they had to make the Plait to Order and it had to be the width requested.  Failure to comply would mean a lower sale price, or worse still not being able to sell.  Straw Plait held in Museum Collections indicates the width of Split Straw usually had to be between 1-mm & 2-mm wide.  If the bundle of Plaiting Straws were thick, the Plaiter needed a Splitter with a high number of Cutting Fins to produce this width.  If the Straws were thin they needed a Splitter with a low number of Cutting Fins. Most Professional Plaiters would have needed a selection of Splitters.  The Frame Splitter which holds a selection of Splitters in one piece of equipment must have been a great joy & relief to Plaiters.

ChildsBoater
A child’s boater

Hat Plaiters
The Straw Plaiting industry began in Luton and the surrounding areas in the mid-17thC and gradually increased in importance as Straw Hats became widely popular. After imported Plaits from Italy were halted during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), Straw grown from the Chiltern Hills was more commonly used.

Horn splitter
A Napoleonic Horn Straw Splitter / Osier Splitter.. An early 19thC Horn Straw Splitter/Osiers Splitter in very good condition for its age and use.The Splitters origin is said to have arrived in England with the Napoleonic Prisoner of War (1795-1816). The Prisoners of War are said to have invented or introduced the Splitter for Straw work.

Bone Splitter

Frame Splitters
Gordon Thwaites also produced a Frame Splitter housing Splitters with 4 to 8 cutting fins. He based the shape on an Austin Splitter in the collection at Wardown House Museum in Luton. Like Austin, he stamped his name but also numbered each Splitter. Bearing the number 1, this is the 1st one made in the 1990s.  All Thwaites Splitters were Precision Engineered from Brass. To ensure long wear the guides are made from Steel.

Tube Splitter

Stem Splitter

Frame splitter

Torpedo Splitter

Doughnut Splitter
A man, named Rolf Andreas Dietz, in Germany  perfected a  6-fin splitter made of plastic after experimenting unsatisfactorily with metal blades for fins from 1984-1990.  In 1991 he went on to patent his splitter and has since had 3-splitters produced in 2, 3, 4 & 6 fins.  Due to their shape, these splitters are often referred to as “Doughnut Splitters”.  

Palm & Straw Splitter

StrawPlaitMill
Straw Plait Mill

Straw Mills


Splint Mill


Plait Mill