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Straw Folding

Straw folding (or better, "straw craft") is a well-developed craft in its own right and is widespread throughout the world. It falls into several catagories, the most important of which are straw plaiting, often for the purpose of staw hat making, straw mosaics, and, most characteristic of all, the weaving or twisting of corn dollies.Corn dollies were traditionally made out of the last sheaf of corn to be cut and were kept as a fertility sympol until the sowing of the next crop, to carry into it the spirit of the corn. The word "corn" here refers, in the English sense to any grain crop, such as wheat or barley and not to Indian corn or maize, although there is a strong tradition of weaving maize leaves and making dollies from them. The Mexicans, in particular, have a folk tradition for weaving dollies.

Interest in corn dollies was undoubtedly stimulated by Sir James Fraser's book "The Golden Bough", with its investigation into agricultural symbols and fertility rites. However, in England, the tradition of making corn dollies declined sharply during the early 20th Century and had practically died out by the end of the Second world War. Nevertheless, in 1949, when I was doing my National Service in the RAF in Norfolk I was looking round a country church and found my way into a small dim room at the foot of the tower. There, hanging behind the door, I found a small corn dolly. I have been interested in the subject ever since then.

It was about this time that a tiny group of country people started to revive the craft. One of the most important was Mary Lambeth, who wrote several books about the subject, the first being !"A Golden Dolly", which not only gave instuctions for folding a variety of dollies, but also investigated the foldklore aspects. Mary was very much an "ordinary" countrywoman, who yet turned out to be extraordinary. She was followed by a whole succession of people, including Alex Coker, Emmie White and Lettice Sandford. The subject was adopted by the Women's Institutes whcih were (and still are) clubs for women living mainly in the country villages.

Straw figures were not restricted to straw dolls in the form of human figures, but included many symbolic and decorative figures, often peculiar to a particular part of the country, such a Lantern from Herefordshire, the Suffolk Horseshoe, the Herefordshire Fan, the Durham Neck, and Handbells from Cambridgeshire. As in Origami, people began to create their own designs, some of them very elaborate. Eventually a society, The Guild of Straw Craftsmen was founded and the Corn Dolly Newsletter started publication.

Only this last week my wife, Margaret, has brought out a new tea towel from the store that she keeps in reserve. It depicts fourteen traditional patterns of straw figures.

Straw craft is not at all restricted the the British Isles, but is found throughout the world, including both advanced and undeveloped societies. Each country has its own style of manipulating the straw or other plant product, and the styles differ widely. As Jan Fodor has said, it is widely practised in the United States and straw craftworkers visit each other across the Atlantic and exchange ideas.

There is a close parallel with Origami. Both have a mathematical basis and both use simple materials. Both have their roots in ancient tradition and yet both can be developed by the designing of new creations. Both bring friendship across frontiers and seas and oceans and between people of widely differing races. Each person uses the materials locally at hand. An interesting variant in some countries, particularly in the tropics is leaf folding, and in particular the folding of palm fronds. Here, straw folding merges into paperfolding.

For weaving figures from straw, it is prefereable to use suitable straw. Modern wheat varieties have been bred to have short stems, to resist the wind, but in England, specialist wheat growers have taken up gain the growing of the old traditional varieties of wheat with long stems. But for beginners, it is possible to use paper drinking straws for practice.

While there have not been so many books written about straw craft as about Origami, many books have still been written. My own add up to fifity, but there are many more.. But sadly most are out-of-print. (I do know a second- hand book dealer in England who sometimes has books on straw craft in her catalogues.) One of the most recent books on straw craft, which may still be in print, is "The Complete Book of Straw Craft and Corn Dollies" by Doris Johnson and Alec Coker. Alec Coker was an Englishman and Doris Johnson was American, so it should be available in the United States.

I think it would be best to search the lists of good craft bookshops in the United States and also the lists of the large general bookshops like Barnes and Noble, Borders and Amazon. One American Bookshop I used to obtain craft books from was The Unicorn Craft and Hobby Book Service, Box 645, Rockville, MD 20851, but that was twenty years ago and they may have changed their address since then.

Straw weaving merges into related crafts, including rushwork, plaiting, basketry, string figures, macrame, weaving, tatting, crochet, lacemaking, string figures and general knots and splices. How sad that one lifetime is not enough to encompass them all! But sraw crafts, like origami is a good place to make a start.

Jasmine Chong wrote:

<< I'm sorry to make everybody mistaken that the straw folding was actually folding from drinking straw, not the other type of straws that some of you might have mentioned it to me. So now that the thing is cleared, does anyone has any idea where to get books about drinking straw folding.??? Thanks in advance. >>

I'm sorry to have misunderstood and sincerely apologise for a long-winded and inappropriate diversion.

Obviously, straws, whether natural or made of paper cannot be folded in the same way as a sheet of paper. The folding of paper drinking straws is, however, no different from the folding or weaving or plaiting of staws of wheat and similar cereals.

Three books specifically on the plaiting of paper straws and on related straw crafts are three comb-bound books with the title: "Paper Straw Craft", written by Gordon Message and published by Mills and Boon of 17-19 Foley Street, London W1A 1DR, England in 1972. They are:

Set 1 Weaving !SBN 0 263 05348 2 Price One pound.
Set 2 Toys and Decorations 0 263 05350 4 One pound.
Set 3 Constuctions 0 263 05352 0 One pound.

Set one is about the traditional corn dolly style of plaiting or weaving straws. Sets 2 and 3 contain some folding and weaving, but are mainly of other straw techniques including models that could be described as constructional. Another paperbacked book, also published by Mills and Boon, in 1973 is "Paper Straw Craft" by Anne Stone. Then priced at two pounds 5p. To my mind, this is a better book than those of Gordon Message. Sadly, after twenty six years, these books must be out of print, but they may be available in libraries.

A search in the Amazon web site in America lists eight books on straw crafts, but seven of them are out of print. The only one shown to be in print is the following: Doris Johnson and Alec Coker; The Complete book of Straw Craft and Corn Dollies. Paperback. Published 1987. Amazon's price: Three Dollars 96c (This is the book I mentioned in my first posting and I recommend it.)

A search in the Amazon Web Site, UK, and other bookseller's web sites in the UK reveals that the following three books on straw crafts are in print at present:

M. Lambeth Discovering Corn Dollies Paperback Published in 1974. One pound 75p.
Doris Johnson and Alex Coker: The Complete book of Straw Craft and Corn Dollies. Paperback Published 1986 Two pounds 65p.
Peter Shelley Handful of Straw: Beginner's Guide to Corn Dollies. Hardback Published 1995. Seven pounds 50p.

I hope this helps.

David Lister

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