In this industry, Tuscany holds a first place. All that which is known as Leghorn or Florence straw is raised on the hills which rise on each side of the rivers Pisa and Elsa, to the south-west of Florence. It requires a particular soil; in fact, its adaptability to the uses to which it is destined depends principally on the soil in which it is sown, which to all appearance exists only in this small district, out of the bounds of which the cultivation of straw is unknown.
The grain of several of the finest qualities of wheat, provided it be of the kind that has a hollow flexible stem, can be used for seed. The soil must be tilled and prepared very much as it is for corn, but the seed must be sown 5 times as thickly as what is usual for other purposes, either in December or February; in the latter case the crop is gathered later. When the straw is full grown, and just before the grain begins to form itself in the ear, which usually is during the months of May and June, it is uprooted and firmly tied, close to the roots, in little sheaves, each one about the size of a handful. Each little sheaf or monata as it is called, is spread out in the shape of a fan to dry in the sun for 3 days, after which it is safely stowed away in barns.
After the harvest is over, and the fields are empty, it is again spread out to catch the heavy summer dews and to bleach in the sun, during which process every sheaf has to be carefully turned over every day, till it is equally white on both sides. Here the cultivator's work ends and the manufacturer's begins. But before we leave the straw-fields we must say a few words concerning the dangers to which this delicate plant is exposed during the various stages of its growth and preparation. When young and small, it is, like other crops, liable to be drowned by too much rain; or if, on the other hand, the weather be too dry, its growth will be stunted. When full grown, a storm often injures or even destroys it in a couple of hours. A whole field of straw on the eve of being uprooted will sometimes be laid down flat on the ground, and the fragile stems will be crushed, stained, and unfitted for use. Even if only slightly bent, the ends will turn upward again, and continue growing, and the little knot or joint which is then formed in the stalk renders it almost unmarketable. If the weather is only foggy or damp, the straw is exposed to rust stains; indeed, it is at all times liable to these stains if not properly dried.
A great deal of wind will dry and shrivel it up, and harden it; it will also harden the ground and make it impossible to uproot the straw without spoiling it, while it will lose its flexibility and be unfit for plaiting if the grain forms itself in the ear before it is uprooted. A shower of rain will often spoil it after it has been uprooted and laid out to dry. It will be watched day and night if the weather is doubtful, and at the least approach of danger it is quickly piled up and covered with mats, or else taken under shelter. If not properly dry, it must not be kept too long piled up, or it will ferment. A great deal is often lost in that way, for as it cannot be laid out again in the wet and muddy fields, it will be spoiled, unless there are paved or gravelled places to spread it out in. When perfectly dry, its greatest dangers are over, for although watching is equally neces-sary during the bleaching process, changes in the weather occur less frequently and less suddenly in the more advanced season, and with a little (tare it is easily protected from any serious damage.
The next proceeding is the sfilatura, as the process of carefully drawing out each single straw from its outer covering or sheath is called. This is done by peasant girls who assemble for the purpose, and holding the sheaf firmly by the roots with one hand, they briskly pull out the straws one by one with the other, the straw thus deprived of its outward sheaf being tied in little bundles, weighed, and put aside for plaiting.
Before it is plaited, it must, however, be first properly sorted according to the different degrees of its thickness. This is usually done by machinery, the straw being ingeniously shaken in an upright position over a frame in which exceedingly small holes are bored, through which the very finest straws alone can pass. What cannot get through is taken on to a second frame with slightly larger holes, then to a third, and so on through 10 different degrees of thickness. What remains is set aside for very coarse hats and other uses.
The little bundles being now properly sorted and numbered, according to the size of the straw, the heads or ears are cut off, and the stalks are cut across in the middle to separate the top ends from the bottom, or pedali, the former being used for the finest plaits, the latter for the more common ones. The bundles are then wetted, and arranged in circular rows one above the other in an earthen or wooden tub or other receptacle; and a small vessel containing lighted sulphur being placed in the middle, the whole is well covered to prevent the fumes escaping, and the straw is well fumigated till it attains the proper degree of whiteness; it is then exposed to the sun until perfectly dry, and is ready for plaiting. If a part of the straw gets stained in course of preparation, it is dyed and used for mixed plaits or for coloured hats.
Nearly all the peasants plait. Some make their whole living by it, others only plait in their leisure hours, while tending cattle, or during the long winter evenings. In some places men, women, and children all plait, and little else is done. Straw merchants go about once a week in their carts from house to house, calling for the ready-made plaits, and leaving more bundles of straw to be worked. The plaits are made of different sizes and patterns, the usual plain ones being made with 7 or 11 straws, according to the width desired. An open pattern can be made by plaiting in a whalebone, which is afterwards drawn out, or the straw may be wound round a stick while plaiting, which when removed leaves a kind of curled edge on one or both sides of the plait. The plaits, if not found sufficiently white, can be again bleached and fumigated with sulphur before they are sewn into hats or bonnets ready for wear.