The idea of finding items made from straw in a museum might initially surprise many visitors. The well-known properties of straw, and conventional wisdom from the story of the ‘Three Little Pigs,’ might lead us to question its suitability as a material of historical significance. Moreover, considering that museum collections house artifacts for extended periods, encompassing both historical and contemporary pieces, it might seem improbable for items crafted from such a seemingly impermanent material to be included. However, this once abundant material, a by-product of cereal crops, has important properties for a wide variety of applications including in the intricate plaiting and weaving of hats.
Three straw hats in MAA’s care come from different parts of the world. Perhaps due to their utilitarian nature, there is little known about them apart from the material and the area from which they come. Their age can be difficult to ascertain, as styles often fail to provide precise dating clues for such objects. The year the item joined the collection, indicated by the accession number, simply provides an estimate of the minimum age of these hats. As noted in previous blog posts on this platform, the identity of some items or how they were used might be misunderstood by museums. In the case of items like these hats, their use may be clear, but the craft skills and techniques employed in their construction remain less so.
The intricate weave of these hats, skilfully crafted by unknown hands, is a common characteristic of all three examples. Over the years, I’ve developed a particular interest in how heritage craft skills can deepen museums’ understanding of everyday objects in their collections. I’ve often wondered, with the creator of an object unknown, what can the skills involved in its production tell us about it (see, for example, Katrina Dring’s post about discerning bead working skills from broken objects). How did manufacturing techniques change over time? Was this craft someone’s main activity, or was it necessary supplementary work? Are there contemporary examples of the use of these craft skills today?
A few parallels seem to exist between the hats at MAA and weaving techniques from other parts of the world. More widely known skills involve working with straw to create corn-dollies and other straw-based objects. ‘Straw’ in this context can refer to wheat, oats, rye, barley, rice, or other cereals, depending on the place and culture. In addition to straw, other materials that are woven include grasses, palms, and paper. However, obtaining suitable materials today has become challenging due to crop modifications that often yield shorter stems.
Like the straw hats at MAA, most of these items, lack makers’ marks. Nevertheless, they use materials in a skilled way that would have required many hours to perfect. Understanding these skills offers valuable insights into the creation process of these objects and how materials behave under various conditions. This includes insights into manipulating materials to form different shapes and determining the optimal soaking duration for straw to achieve the best results. Modern artisans often turn to museum collections as references and sources of firsthand information from craftsmen of the past (see, for example, this post about ceramic maker Lisa Robson’s interaction with Bartmann jugs at MAA). Engaging with these experts, discussing objects, and seeing finishes and techniques through their eyes can be an illuminating experience.
Yet in early May 2023, the UK-based Heritage Crafts Association published their fourth edition of the ‘Red List of Endangered Crafts’. This report provides information on the number of people in the UK who are professionally practicing various crafts as either their primary or a secondary source of income. Astonishingly, only one craftsperson is actively practicing straw plaiting, leading to its classification as a ‘critically endangered’ craft. Even with this lone practitioner, there possibly was a significant gap in the transmission of skills, considering that the last professional craftspeople working with straw plaiting were active in the 1930s, with some informal continuation for another 50 years or so.
Straw plaiting for the hat industry was an important income stream for rural families from the late 1600s, particularly in Bedfordshire. By the 1840s, this had spread across the UK, with the highest concentration remaining in Buckingham and its surrounding counties. This professional occupation involved various stages, from preparing the straw to plaiting, finishing, and winding it for sale in lengths for subsequent hat-making processes. The skills are evident in the different plait patterns, widths, and the choice between using split or whole straw. It is a tradition that is distinct to other uses of the same material, such as crafting corn dollies, and represented the sole paid profession associated with this material. Around the 1880s, there is evidence of English craft traditions copying colour patterns and designs from across Europe and the Far East, as new products reached British shores. Plaits to weave into finished items were also exported worldwide from the UK.
In light of this historical significance, and straw’s wide application, its presence in museum collections is hardly surprising. The level of skill visible in straw-based objects from across the world, challenges preconceptions of straw as a characterless material; it’s worth lies in the dexterity with which it is woven into intricate creations.
As part of the Stores Move project at MAA, collection records are being continuously updated, and colleagues from the project have re-examined and re-photographed the hats that I’ve discussed above, during their transfer from the old store to the new Centre for Material Culture. Thus, renewed in a global collection, these seemingly ordinary items, crafted in ways that transcend geographical and generational boundaries, have reemerged as poignant reminders of the shared practicalities of daily life, irrespective of geographical location.
For more information on this topic, check out:
Straw worker Veronica Main’s publication, Straw Plating Heritage Techniques for Hats, Trimmings, Bags, and Baskets (2023).