This booklet about straw plaiting in North Mymms, written by Jenny Rackstraw and Hugh Baddeley, was published by the former North Mymms Local History Society (NMLHS), which gave permission for the material to be put online.
Straw Plaiting in North Mymms
|Children learning to plait straw in Victorian times|
Image courtesy Brian Webb of thestrawplaiters.com
Straw plaiting was carried on in England from Elizabethan times using straw imported from Italy. But during the Napoleonic wars, in the early 1800s, Britain blockaded the continental ports of much of Europe and Italian straw could not be imported and English straw had to be used instead.
Straw plaiting grew to be a most important cottage industry, not only in Hertfordshire but also in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Essex. It was in these areas what lace-making was to the cottagers of Nottinghamshire and other counties further to the north. The craft of straw plaiting consisted of plaiting whole or split straw to one of the many patterns in common use, and making it up into long lengths for use in the making of hats, table mats and boxes. By far the biggest users of straw plait were the hat makers.
Hertfordshire straw was of very good quality. A farmer might accept a dealer's offer for an unthreshed wheat stack. The dealer would employ a "drawer" who would bind each sheaf with a strap, hold it between his legs and draw out the good straws, a few at a time, tying them into bundles below the ears. The ears were cut off with a knife and left for the farmer to thresh. The dealer would remove the joints, cut them into suitable lengths and sort them into different thicknesses. Then they were made up into small bundles for use by the plaiters, either before or after bleaching and dyeing. Dyeing was not really practical until after the 1850s because the colours would run. The invention of Aniline dyes was a great step forward and multicoloured patterns could now be produced giving the English plait a colourful quality quite different from the classic Leghorn of Italy.
A great deal of straw plaiting was done in North Mymms parish as the 1851 census reveals. The straw plaiters split the straws lengthwise, using iron splitters, and plaited by hand in a variety of patterns, five, seven or even twenty plaits could be produced. Much plaiting was done indoors but it could be done sitting outside or even walking along. There is an old photograph in Hertford Museum showing two young women standing on a footbridge plaiting while a child is playing beside them. A child could begin learning to straw plait as early as two or three years of age and could be sent to a straw plaiting school from three to five years old. In 1804 Arthur Young, the famous writer on farming and farm communities, wrote that after six weeks teaching a girl could earn eight to fifteen shillings a week and women could earn five shillings a day. In fact, the remuneration varied very much according to market factors and by the end of the 19th century rates paid for straw plait had dropped to a mere pittance. By starting so young the girls learned well and straw plaiting became a life-long occupation.
Most straw plaiting was done by the wives and daughters of labourers to augment the meagre wage paid to farm workers in those days. Many village women obtained their supply of straws from the shop in the village. Some shop-keepers were prepared to operate a barter system. Plaiters would offer half a score of plait in exchange for necessities such as sugar, tea and coal, no money changing hands.
Plaiting straws must be tall and straight. It must be possible to cut at least nine inches of good straight straw between the head and the first joint. The plaiting industry, at its height, created such a demand that farmers would often be prepared to grow wheat specially for plaiting. Modern wheat would be much too short. Experiments were made with other crops such as rye, grown in the Orkney Islands, but it was found that there was no substitute for bread wheat. Even this was better if this was cut early. When mechanical reapers were introduced fields earmarked for plaiting straw were not cut by machine but carefully by hand.
Although English straw, even when specially grown in this way, was never such good quality as Italian straw, English plait became competitive with Italian because English plaiters evolved a method of splitting straws into narrow "splints", as they were called. These could be worked into fine, delicate plait. A splitting machine, known as a "sheen" for short, was invented consisting of a pear-shaped piece of wood with three, four or five holes in it. Into each hole was fitted a metal cutter made from part of a nail. These cutters could split the straw into three to nine separate splints. This opened the way not only to speeding up the splitting process but it provided a raw material that, being thin, could be made up into fine and delicate plait.
Plait intended for the hat trade was worked by plaiting away from the body, the straws being moved in front of the hands like knitting. The finished braid would fall towards the body. The plaiter held a bundle of damp straws under her left armpit, pulling out a couple as required and putting them in her mouth — they usually used them in pairs. She moistened them again with her tongue, and kept them there, the ends sticking out of each side of her mouth, until she was ready to use them. Usually the right corner of a plaiters lips became scarred as a result of repeatedly pulling the plait out of her mouth.
As work was finished it was measured. From chin to fingertip was roughly one yard. The finished plait was placed over the left arm in a series of big loops. Work was sold in scores — of yards that is. A score is 20. It took about 70 yards (64 metres) to make a bonnet. While the plait was being made it had to be kept moist, particularly at the ends. This meant that sitting in front of a fire during the cold days of winter was not desirable. To keep warm women put charcoal or glowing embers in a pot and placed it underneath their skirts, which were worn long in those days. At least they had warm feet! "Dicky-pots" or "dick-pots" was the name given to these pots in the north of the straw plaiting area and in the south, which perhaps included North Mymms, they had the name of "chad pots".
The finished plait was passed through a wooden mill and grooves of different width cut in the rollers permitted plait with a fancy edge to be rolled flat without damage to the finish. There were many different types of plait. A collection of more than 30 different patterns hung in a school in Aldbury. The patterns had names like Feather Edge, Dunstable Twist, Whipcord, Rustic and Pearl. One of the most attractive was known as "Brilliant". The shiny faces of single split straws (splints) were set at an angle to one another, giving a kind of check effect. Brilliant needed considerable skill to make it well and probably only those who had learnt it in childhood ever really mastered it.
Turning again to the 1851 census records we find that there were at that time 24 straw plaiters in Welham Green. One was a widow and head of the household, with one unmarried daughter, also a straw plaiter, and four children working at other jobs. One unmarried straw plaiter lived alone. There were 21 other women in the village who were not straw plaiters but there were two child plaiters. Of the husbands of women straw plaiters, 16 were labourers, one was a pauper, two were haybinders, and two were bricklayers.
Water End in 1851 had four women straw plaiters, one of whom was listed as a pauper and a straw plaiter! The heads of these households were all labourers who had been born in North Mymms and three of their unmarried daughters were straw plaiters.
In Bell Bar there were three straw plaiters, two married and one unmarried. Roestock was a great centre of straw plaiting. There were 28 plaiters in all including two children, 14 married women and six unmarried. Among the heads of households was a carpenter, a sawyer and a wheelwright.
There were 14 straw plaiters elsewhere in the parish. In addition to the plaiters other women in the parish were engaged in more skilled straw-work. There were three plait-weavers, five hat makers and five hat weavers The hat makers were daughters who were apparently using their mother's straw plait to make the plait. The hat makers were all daughters of tradesmen.
It would seem that most of the straw plaiting in North Mymms was carried on by wives and daughters of labourers to augment the family income. The women, at this time could earn more than their husbands who worked at labouring jobs. Unlike lace-making, plaiting could, as we have said, be carried on anywhere, sitting in the doorway, rocking the cradle with one foot, even sitting on a style chatting to a young man. But to earn good money it was necessary to put in long hours. The price fetched by plait varied, not only with the overall demand but also according to the type of plait. In 1858 Diamond plait, an attractive double plait, fetched seven to eight shillings a score while plain brown plait was fetching only sevenpence a score. A score, remember was 20 yards — an awful lot of plait representing many hours of unbroken work. No wonder that housework tended to be neglected! In fact the lifestyle of the plaiters came in for criticism. The vicar of Abbotts Langley found them independent, vain and overdressed although he thought the work preferable to field work and not unhealthy. Other critics said that the plaiters showed lamentable ignorance, they were idle and gossipy. Just how anyone could turn out straw plait in the lengths required, measured in gross yards, and be idle was not explained!
Straw plaiting was largely responsible for the transformation of Luton from a small dirty town with a population scarcely over 600 at the beginning of the 19th century to the centre of the straw hat making industry in just a few years. It developed its Luton Plait Halls, a market where plait could be bought and sold and often the best prices obtained. Women would set out to walk up to ten miles, their plait and that of neighbours, piled on a pram. Some were accompanied by their families. Even when Luton switched to bonnet making it continued to be the biggest centre for the straw plait and hat trades. As many as two thousand traders would do business there on an average day.
But towards the end of the century the trade of straw plaiting dwindled and declined almost to nothing. Imports of plait from China followed by the arrival of competition in the form of quality imports from Japan were serious blows. Local plait fetched prices as low as two pence to two shillings a score. Elementary education became compulsory and conflicted with the plait schools where the very young had been trained. Plaiting became the occupation of the old. They new no other work and carried on almost from habit. The rising generation were not interested. In North Mymms, as elsewhere, fewer and fewer people were straw plaiters or even took any interest in the skilful craft that had once contributed so much to family finances and village life.
by Jenny Rackstraw and Hugh Baddeley
Arthur Young: General View of the Agriculture of Hertfordshire, 1804.
W. Cobbett: Rural Rides, 1830
The North Mymms Local History Society wish to thank the author of the book STRAW PLAIT and the publishers, SHIRE PUBLICATIONS LTD., for giving permission for extracts to be included in this booklet.
Jean Davis's illustrated book is strongly recommended.
Online editor's note: Thanks to Brian Webb of thestrawplaiters.com for permission to use one of his collection of pictures of straw plaiting, and to Peter Miller who loaned the booklet so that the material could be uploaded to this site.