Cassell’s Magazine 1882. From the article Plait and Plaiters
During the 1800s families survived by plaiting straw into long lengths which were then used to make hats. Sadly, due to cheap imports from China and Japan at the end of the 1800s, straw plaiting died out. Now the skills are almost lost and hat plaiting is listed as Critically Endangered by the Heritage Crafts Association. Two of the last traditional plaiters live in the Chilterns. Here’s some more background to Straw Plaiting.
7-end whole straw plait, the staple of the hat industry and one of the first children learned to make. Copyright: Veronica Main
The industry of straw plaiting was established in the Chilterns by the early 1700s and was probably here in the 1600s. In these centuries the plaiters may have been using both wood chip and straw to make their plait. By the 1800s it was commonly reported that the Chilterns produced excellent plaiting straw due to the chalk and micro-climate, but in reality, some plaiters would have been using straw imported from Italy as it was finer than the local straw. The resulting plait commanded a higher price at market.
The old varieties of straw grown in the Chilterns were ideal for plaiting with their hollow stem and thin wall. When damped the straws bent easily without breaking. The process of preparing the straw for plaiting was long. From the sheaf it had to be cleaned and cut down to shorter lengths. Next it needed to be sorted into bundles all the same width. Sorting was critical as it ensured the plaiter could make a plait of even-width. Anything less than perfect would be rejected and their week’s work either underpaid or completely unpaid. The final stage was to bleach or dye the straws then they were ready for the plaiters’ nimble fingers to begin their work.
The numbers of women, children and men occupied in plaiting rose in the late early 1700s, early 1800s due to import restrictions caused by the Napoleonic Wars and there was a rapid growth in the number of people involved in the industry. Unlike other rural industries straw plaiters only needed the ability to follow a pattern sequence and a supply of straw, making it an occupation to undertake without significant financial outlay. From the beginning of the 1800s, children were often sent to Plait School where they might receive some rudimentary learning but spent their time producing straw plait. By four or five years old, boys and girls were experienced plaiters producing one or two score (approximately 18 or 36 metres) of plait a week. Most often the boys plaited until they were ten, then would join their father working the land, or in other occupations. The girls would continue into their adult years and after marriage, often training their children to plait. It is intriguing to follow the lives of families in the Chilterns, observing how the trade developed and how in some cases when the price of straw plait fell and the price of lace rose women would switch trades. It is important to remember that these occupations generated important income for otherwise poor families.
Brass straw splitter Copyright: Veronica Main
The straw splitter was introduced sometime around the beginning of the 1800s. One account claims the first splitter was developed by a man called Thomas Simmons who lived at Chalfont St Peter. The splitter divided the whole straw into narrow splints. When the plaiters worked with these splints they could produce extremely narrow and lightweight plaits. These split straw plaits were highly valued in the hat industry and earned the plaiter more money. The only other tool required was a mill. This small mangle pressed the split straws before they were plaited, making them easier to work, and pressed the finished plait making it more attractive to the buyer. Mills were more expensive to purchase therefore if there were several plaiters in a village they would share one.
Wooden splint mill from the 1800s. Copyright: Veronica Main
It is important to remember the plaiters were working to order. Straw plait was a high fashion item since hats matched the dress colour. Plait patterns came in and out of fashion and plait widths varied. If plaiters wanted to earn a good income they needed to make what the plait dealer was requesting. They would receive a small piece of plait to copy and their plait dealer might also supply the necessary coloured straws needed for the pattern. They had to work out how to split the straw to the correct width, then create the same pattern to the same width, their work would be checked, then produce one, two or three score of finished plait by the time the plait dealer called again the following week. Yes, a good plaiter could earn a decent income, but to do that involved a lot of work and skill.
Nicholl’s Plait Stall in the Plait Halls, Luton, 1885. Copyright: Culture Trust, Luton
The finished plait was sold to a plait dealer then onto the hat manufacturers. It may also have been sold to bonnet makers in the Chiltern villages, but were there bonnet makers in the villages? This is another piece of information we need to uncover.
Plaiters at Edlesborough. Copyright: Culture Trust, Luton
Plaiters did get into trouble within Victorian society. Their assumed ‘wealth’ enabled them to live independent lives, to buy good clothes, to visit the public house in their village. It meant they did not have to go into service and become servants. One can imagine the outrage this caused especially since plaiters could walk, chat and plait openly in their villages. The poor lace maker was confined to her pillow, but the straw plaiter simply put the straw under her arm, plaiting as she went where she wanted to go. Despite some of the stories widely circulated during the 1800s, straw plaiters generally were talented, skilful and hardworking people. If you are fortunate enough to have a straw plaiter in your family history, then be proud.
A plait called Tartan made in Bledlow, 1800s. Copyright: Culture Trust, Luton
Railroad plait made by Mrs Eldridge of Ballinger, 1850s. Copyright: Culture Trust, Luton
Rustic plait made in Bledlow, 1800s. Originally the plait was natural colour and green. Copyright: Culture Trust, Luton
The volunteers working on this project will need to check census records and parish records to gather information about the villages involved in plaiting and when. When did plaiting begin in the area, can we find out? How long did plaiting last in the area? Do the plaiters cottages still exist in the villages? Are plait schools listed in any villages? Where did the plait dealers live? Were local farmers providing the straw? How many girls changed occupations from straw plaiter to lace maker?
All of this is intriguing and ground-breaking research. All we need to unlock the answers are some volunteers. To get involved contact Helena Chance, the Woodlanders Lives and Landscapes project leader. firstname.lastname@example.org