The making of straw hats and bonnets was, until this century, a purely domestic affair. The straw was grown, prepared, braided, and sewed together by members of the same family. In New Hampshire, the wide hats used in the hayfields were made of rye straw. This craft of hat weaving provided many a farmer's daughter with spending money.
Mrs. Betsey Metcalf Baker is said to have been the first American manufacturer of straw hats. She started at the age of twelve, after admiring an imported bonnet in a shopwindow. She taught many of her friends the art.
Braiding straw became so popular that it was carried into the schoolroom, into church meetings—and the sewing circles became braiding bees! The ladies carried their little straw bundles with them almost everywhere they went and straw plaiting became the handwork of the day. In fact, it became such a fad that one reformer, in 1825, published a tract, "Essay on the Manufacture of Straw Bonnets" in which he warned of the evils that straw hats would bring. Some maintained that famine would overtake the land as the result of women cutting the grain before it had ripened!
PLATE VIII. A straw hat made of two types of straw braid.
A most interesting discovery has been made of a Kansas craftswoman who still braids wheat straw and makes hats and baskets. She gathers the wheat at harvesttime and removes the heads of the wheat, the joints, and the leaves, as just described in the preparations for weaving straw mats. When she is ready to braid the straw, she soaks the straws in warm water. She presses the braid flat by running it through a hand clothes wringer. See Plate VIII for an example of her braiding.
Figure 3. Crisscross three straws, making a star pattern.
Her hats are like farm hats. This one was remade to suit the fashion. See Figures 3 and 4 for detailed drawings of the method of braiding straws.
To make the flat braid, strip the straw and soak it. Crisscross three straws, making a star pattern. Add a seventh straw. Start braiding by taking the extreme right straw and folding it. Braid it under one straw and over two to the center. Take the extreme left straw and fold it over. Braid it under one and over two. Continue to braid. Additional length is made by inserting another straw in the end of the short straw. Keep the braid wet while working on it.
Figure 4. Braid under one and over two to the center.
Place mats, hats, purses, small baskets, and napkin rings are a few of the articles that can be made of braided straw. Other braids with different numbers of straws may be made.
Swedish craftsmen use straw in table decorations. Tiny straw men and women, animals, and insects emerge from clever fingers.
Plate IX shows a straw cowboy made of wheat straw and thread, with wire for the lasso. First, the straw was stripped and soaked overnight. Ten straws, each 6 inches in length, were wrapped and tied 1/2 inch from one end with cotton crochet thread. This formed the top of the head. The straws were wrapped Vi inch below the first binding to form the head and neck. The straws for the body and legs were separated and five 4-inch straws were placed crosswise between the main straws. These were for the arms. The wrists were tied and the straws cut to represent the fingers. A band was wrapped around the body for the waist. Near the hips, two heads of grain were tied on to represent the chaps. The divided straws and chaps were tied at the ankles.
The details for making the brim of the cowboy hat are shown in Figure 5. Tie a double strand of thread to the first band of thread. Then place a 2-inch straw between the threads and tie it firmly in place in the middle. Tie another short piece of straw and so on until enough have been added to make a complete hat brim. Bend the straws in half like the spokes of a wheel. Weave over and under the straws with the two threads until the brim holds its shape. Clip the straw ends to make the brim round.
PLATE IX. A straw cowboy.
Figure 5. Details for the hat.
Other figures may be made in much the same manner. Colored scraps of yarn may be used instead of cotton thread, and felt from discarded hats adds decorative touches. These objects make unusual party favors and are attractive lapel ornaments for suits and sweaters.