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
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