When people think of straw plait nowadays they usually think of corn dollies. However, that’s not really what I am talking about here. I mean the industrial straw plaiting techniques which were used in Victorian times to manufacture hats. This is something that I have become interested in as the St Albans area was one of the main centres for this industry. I’m interested in the Victorian period and in particular the home-working which occurred anyway so its just part of that.
The other day I was lucky enough to attend a course on straw plaiting and learn lots more about it. For example, children as young as three years old started work plaiting, some attending special plait schools. The work was hard and they were expected to produce 20 yards of plait a day and this had to be very regular and precise. Over time the plaiters fingers were damaged due to the sulphur used to treat the straw and they developed sores around their mouths where they ran the straw through their mouths to moisten it. It was a hard and demanding job, however the bonnets and hats produced were beautiful and have a very special magical quality about them.
As part of the course we were taught how to straw plait and use straw plaiters. It’s a skill in itself and there are a wide range of different types of plait and patterns/ colours that can be produced. However, the most simple straw plait can be produced using two straws which folded can produce three stalks to plait. You could either use paper or craft straws.Obviously in the past they would have created these lengths of straw plait which would then have been coiled around and sewn together to make the hats.
Anyway, it struck me that straw plaiting would make a wonderful activity for toddlers. You don’t need to use actual straw as that can be quite sharp. The most basic straw plait requires 2 straws and you simply fold them over and start plaiting away using both hands. For younger children its best to use craft straws, there are a few places on the Internet, for example I found some here. You can also used shredded paper, but that is a bit more fiddly
Hold one straw horizontally, take the second straw and fold it over your horizontal straw at right angles near to one end of the horizontal straw. You’ll then have the basic start.
You then work the straws so you move the outside one to the inside on alternate sides. I’ve tried to show you the basic technique in the images below: