Woven in Wheat

There was a lovely article on wheat art in the March, 2015 edition of Wheat Life magazine.  Since humans began planting and harvesting wheat, there has been straw, the stalk of the wheat plant.  For centuries, the straw of wheat, oats, barley, rice, and other crops has been collected and spun, sewed, or woven into a variety of objects.

In the 1600’s, woven straw hats were the rage throughout Europe.  Hundreds of thousands of people were employed in the industry, weaving straw and making hats in factories or in their homes.  Other objects made of straw include boxes, baskets, toys, decorative items, and more.

Vintage straw hat from the 1920's.

Vintage straw hat from the 1920’s. Photo source.

There are several different forms of straw work.  The first, plaiting, braiding, or wheat weaving, is when stalks of straw are twisted around each other.  There are hundreds of variations of this method, producing different patterns, shapes and styles.

A pretty sculpture made out of braided wheat. Photo source

A pretty sculpture made out of braided wheat. Photo source

Straw marquetry is when the stalk of straw is split down the middle, then applied to a flat surface in a pattern.  Sheets of straw marquetry can be cut up and integrated into different pieces of art.

A gorgeous example of straw marquetry. Photo source

A gorgeous example of straw marquetry. Photo source

Swiss straw work was developed in the 1800’s to create trimmings and products for straw hats.  Swiss straw work features very fine, detailed, and delicate patterns.

This lovely brooch is a good example of Swiss straw work

This lovely brooch is a good example of Swiss straw work. Photo source

Straw embroidery dates all the way back to at least the 1600’s, if not earlier.  The stalk of straw is split and softened in water, making it pliable enough to work it through fabric using traditional embroidery stitches.  Straw embroidery was used to decorate traditional costumes, as well as church altar cloths, vestments, and other decorative fabrics.

A fine antique example of straw embroidery

A fine example of antique straw embroidery. Photo source

Tied straw work is found mainly in Scandinavian countries.  Whole straws are bent and tied into different shapes and figures.  In Germany and Switzerland, stars are the main object to be made using this technique.

A tied straw star. Photo source

A tied straw star. Photo source

These straw working techniques can be combined to make beautiful objects ranging from bits of jewelry to large sculptures.

The tools used for working straw are simple – scissors, thread, smoothers (for marquetry), needles (for embroidery), straw splitters, and stronger thread or thin wire for tied work.  A large pan for soaking stalks of straw to keep them pliable is also a necessary tool in the wheat worker’s stash.

Working straw was almost a lost art coming into the mid 1900’s.  Today, however, it has experienced a resurgence in interest, and there are active organizations across the United States and Europe dedicated to preserving and promoting this art form.

For more information on wheat weaving, or to learn the craft, contact the National Association of Wheat Weavers.   The organization was started in 1970, and has members in the United States, Canada, and Europe who would love to share their expertise with anyone interested!

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