A Brief History of Straw Art

The practice of wheat weaving, or 'corn dolly plaiting' as it is known in England where all grain is called 'corn' or  'straw work' is very old and seems to have been done all over the world wherever grain was grown. Its history is truly lost in the mists of time.

Circle of Wheat by Christine Swanson
Circle of Wheat
by Christine Swanson

The designs made from straw vary from country to country, but a similar belief in the fertility of the earth underlies them all. Woven from the last sheaf or best cut from the harvest, straw work/corn dollies was a decorative way to store a bundle of seed over the winter so that the Spirit of the Grain could survive and be plowed back into the soil in the springtime. Dating back to a time when peoples very survival depended upon the grain harvest, harvest customs such as straw plaiting were thought to bring blessing and prosperity to the community and its land.

Straw has also been used throughout the ages for thatching roofs, for rope to tether animals and to tie sheaves of grain, for beehives and baskets, and for hats (to mention just a few uses).

With the changes in harvesting methods as a result of the Industrial Revolution, the art and craft of wheat weaving was almost completely lost in Europe by the mid-1900s. One small part of the story of its preservation in England involves people like Fred Mizen, Minnie Lambeth, Philla Davis, Lettice Sandford and Alec Coker; Doris Johnson in America, while in Belarus Larisa Los and Taisia Agafonenko were instrumental in preserving the art of straw work.

Quiet Waters by Tatyana Bychkov
Quiet Waters
Marquetry by Tatyana Bychkov

Besides plaited straw work, there are two other important areas of straw art: straw marquetry and Swiss straw work. Straw Marquetry is the art of making flat pictures or geometric designs by arranging cut pieces of straw on a variety of objects. The hollow-stemmed straw is first split open and flattened. The straw ribbons are then glued side by side onto some sort of paper. Next, straw sheets are dried under a weight then cut into shapes and glued onto a surface to make the design.

Swiss Thread pin designed and made by Beth Keller. Photo by Nan Rohan.
Swiss Straw Butterfly Pin
by Beth Keller

Swiss straw work developed in Switzerland in the 17th century in a region called the Freiamt (later the canton of Aargau). It is associated with the hat industry that developed there. There are too many design motifs to name here but the basic element is the 'schnurli,' a two-ply straw thread spun from two narrow straw splints (instead of flattening a whole straw as for straw marquetry, the whole straw is split into narrow splints). 'Schnurli' means 'little threads'. This straw thread is then made into a variety of motifs, including beads, flowers, needle roses, rosettes, horseshoes, and more. Another common design element of Swiss straw work is the spreuer, a narrow straw splint formed on the tines of a dog comb to make a pleasing leaf shape. Again there are many variations of the spreuer. These motifs (and others) were originally used in combination with Swiss thread motifs for hat decorations. This whole area of straw work might have been lost forever but for people like Veronica Main of England, Nonie McFarland of Australia, and Peter Shelley of England who did much research and learned these techniques firsthand from the very few remaining Swiss straw experts in Switzerland. Several of these researchers then published books of instruction. Straw workers today are the beneficiaries of this careful research, and have brought Swiss straw work into the 21st century.

Straw art enthusiasts of today are making designs both traditional and modern. They have discovered (like straw workers of the past) that straw is one of the most versatile materials in the world. The only limit is ones imagination!