The all-im­por­tant and lu­cra­tive art of straw plait­ing

Grace Weller, Com­mu­nity Learn­ing Of­fi­cer for the Chiltern Open Air Mu­seum, takes a look back at the straw plait­ing in­dus­try that was preva­lent in Bucks in the 19th cen­tury

Buckinghamshire Advertiser - - PEOPLE PLACES -

STRAW has been plaited in Buck­ing­hamshire for cen­turies, but this ru­ral in­dus­try was at its peak from the early- to mid-19th cen­tury, when straw hats and bon­nets be­came fash­ion­able.

Lu­ton was at the cen­tre of the hat-mak­ing trade, so many Chilterns vil­lages were in­volved in sup­ply­ing the man­u­fac­tur­ers with lengths of straw plait.

Th­ese plaits were sold by the score (20 yards, or 18m). Around three-and-a-half score were re­quired to make a bon­net, and on av­er­age plaiters pro­duced three score each week. The majority of plaiters were fe­male and their con­tri­bu­tions were vi­tal to fam­ily in­come – dur­ing the 1830s they could earn be­tween seven and ten shillings (35p to 50p) in a week, whereas a ba­sic farm labourer’s wage was only two to five shillings (10p to 25p).

It could be dif­fi­cult for the mid­dle classes to hire ser­vants in ar­eas where straw plait­ing was preva­lent, as many young women pre­ferred the good money and in­de­pen­dence as­so­ci­ated with plait­ing.

How­ever, life for a plaiter could be hard. Women could plait with­out look­ing and still walk around, so of­ten con­tin­ued through­out the day and night. But be­cause they re­quired both hands, they had a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing slovenly as lit­tle time was left for cook­ing, clean­ing or mend­ing clothes. It was also al­leged that their rel­a­tively high wages en­cour­aged lazi­ness in male rel­a­tives.

To keep straw damp and pli­able, plaiters had to re­peat­edly run it through their mouths.

The sharp edges and residues of sul­phur or urine used to bleach the straw caused hor­ri­ble cuts and sores.

For the same rea­son, they could not light fires, so earth­en­ware ‘chaddy’ or ‘dicky’ pots filled with em­bers were passed amongst the women and placed be­neath their skirts for warmth. This car­ried its own risks, as one five-year-old girl in Che­sham trag­i­cally died after her cloth­ing caught fire.

Whole fam­i­lies were in­volved in straw plait­ing, with chil­dren trim­ming ends from the age of two. Be­fore the Ed­u­ca­tion Acts of 1870 and 1880, chil­dren aged three up­wards were sent to cot­tage schools for a few pence each week, but th­ese were more of a child­mind­ing en­ter­prise.

Of the 21 plait­ing schools in Che­sham in the mid-1860s, only

Many women would rather work as plaiters than to go into ser­vice with the mid­dle classes be­cause they earned good money and could be more in­de­pen­dent

A typ­i­cal straw plait­ing school for chil­dren - there wasn’t much em­pha­sis on learn­ing to read or write

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.