Creating a Straw Bonnet
A recent trip to Old Sturbridge Village (a living museum located in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, which re-creates life in rural New England during the 1790s through 1830s) for their exhibit, Trimmed to Taste, gave a new appreciation for the work required to produce even one bonnet. It’s easy enough to read a period description of the work involved in plaiting, sewing and blocking a bonnet, but to see one actually in process brings the reality of the work involved in creating a straw framed bonnet vividly to life.
Straw plaiting, or platting, was a common activity in rural England, just as it was in New England. It could be taken on as a career or as a hobby to earn a little extra money on the side. The preferred straw was rye. Hertfordshire, the Bennet’s home county, was famous, along with Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, and Berkshire for the employment of many thousands of women and young children in the plaiting industry; but this had largely ended by the beginning of the 20th century: the number of English plaiters, all told, was not more than a few hundreds in 1907, as compared with 30,000 in 1871.
The districts around Luton in Bedfordshire and the neighboring counties were, since the beginning of the 17th century, the British home of the straw-plait industry. The straw of certain varieties of wheat cultivated in that region is, in favorable seasons, possessed of a fine bright color and due to tenacity and strength. The straw is cut as in ordinary harvesting, but is allowed to dry in the sun, before binding. Subsequently straws are selected from the sheaves, and of these the pipes of the two upper joints are taken for plaiting. The pipes are assorted into sizes by passing them through graduated openings in a grilled wire frame, and those of good color are bleached by the fumes of sulfur. Spotted and discoloured straws are dyed either in pipe or in plait. The plaiters work up the material in a damp state, either into whole straw or split straw plaits. Split straws are prepared with the aid of a small instrument having a projecting point which enters the straw pipe, and from which radiate the number of knife-edged cutters into which the straw is to be split. The straws were put through a small mangle to flatten them. They were then braided to produce a woven strip which was sold to the makers of hats, bonnets, baskets and other wares.
In the photo at the top of the page, you can see two young women plaiting straw into 8 strand braids. Eleven strand braids or plaits, were also common and could command a much higher price, as the work involved was much more complicated. You can see the whole straws standing in a pot of water, waiting to be split (wet straw was easier to split without breaking and bent easily for the braids.) Women and children who plaited on a professional basis were taught the skills in plait schools. Here the owner of the school would educate the children he employed in the rudiments of reading and writing, instead of paying a wage for the straw plaiting they produced for the remainder of the day. At its peak in the early nineteenth century a woman could earn more by plaiting than a man could earn on the land. There was concern that the industry led to dissolution and idleness in the menfolk.
Professional plaits were sold in 50 yard increments. If you were plaiting from home in the hopes of selling your “Braid” to the local storekeeper (to be then sent on to a straw hat factory) you would need at least 25 yards of braid, since 20-25 yards of platting was needed for each bonnet.
At the factory, workers would determine the shape of the bonnet to be made, and began sewing the braid, one line at a time around a wooden or plaster form (called blocking). The result was a plain straw bonnet, which could then be purchased to be trimmed at home, or bought by a milliner’s shop to trim up in a much more fashionable manner for wealthy clients.
In 1809, Mary Kies became the first woman to be issued a US patent in 1809 for the rights to a technique for weaving straw with silk and thread to make bonnets. This method created a fabric like mat, which could be cut and shaped, like the buckram used in fabric covered bonnets.
Alternately, hats could be woven from palm fronds imported and purchased for this purpose. Not surprisingly, the tree most associated with this process is the Sabal causiarum, commonly known as the Puerto Rican hat palm. Palm leaves were split, not unlike the straw used in the plats, and woven in the form of the desired hat. The palm weave created a tight “mat” like piece which would then be further blocked and shaped. Hat were woven for both men and women and could command higher prices than braided straw. The most famous of these, is, of course the Panama hat. This hat is based on the “Pilgrim” hat of the 17th century.
There are two main processes in the hat’s creation: weaving and blocking. The best way to gauge the quality of the weave is to count the number of weaves per square inch. Fewer than 100 would be considered low quality. There are many degrees of increasing quality, up to the rarest and most expensive hats, which can have as many as 1600–2000 weaves per square inch; it is not unheard of for these hats to sell for thousands of dollars apiece. The quality of the weave itself, however, is more important. A high weave count, even an attractive-looking one, does not guarantee a well-woven hat. It is said that a Panama of true quality (a “superfino”) can hold water and when folded for storage can pass through a wedding ring.
Although the Panama hat continues to provide a livelihood for thousands of Ecuadorians, fewer than a dozen weavers capable of making the finest “montecristi superfinos” remain. The UK’s Financial Times Magazine (January 7) recently reported that there may be no more than 15-20 years remaining for the industry in Ecuador, due to the competition of paper-based Chinese-made imitations, especially as a few hat sellers dominate and manipulate the market.
Laura Boyle creates reproduction Regency hats and bonnets for her website, Austentaion. Although a cottage industry in itself, she now has an all new appreciation for the work involved in creating a “Straw Bonnet from Scratch”.
Special thanks to the historical interpreters at Old Sturbridge Village. Images from Old Sturbridge Village, featuring their historical bonnet collection.