Straw plaiting in England began to prosper during the Napoleonic Wars of 1803–15, when supplies of straw plait from Italy were cut off and duties were imposed on other imported plaits.
Plaiting was a cottage industry carried out by women and children to supply the hat-making industry in and around Luton and Dunstable where men’s hats and fashionable women’s hats and bonnets were made.
The trade was introduced to Essex at the end of the eighteenth century by Marquis and Marchioness of Buckingham, of Gosfield Hall near Halstead, as a way of providing income to the distressed poor. The Buckinghams hired an instructor from Dunstable to teach local women the art of plaiting and the trade quickly spread to most villages in north Essex where there had previously been wool spinners.
By 1855 Coggeshall had many straw plaiters at work. There were three ‘Straw Bonnet Manufacturers’ in the town; Mrs Eliza Surry and Frederick Lawrence both of Church Street and Alfred Wheeler of Market Hill. There were also five ‘Milleners – finishers of women’s hats – who would also have used straw plait. These were Miss Susannah Ambrose of East Street, Mrs Ann Antony of Church Street, Miss Christience Davey and Henry Moore both of Market End and Mrs Kezia Norman of Stoneham Street. (The Post Office Directory for Essex Herts and Kent, 1855)
Portrait of Henrietta Liston dated 1800 showing a plaited straw bonnet with silk lining and embellishments.
Straw for plaiting was harvested by hand as a machine reaper damaged the stems. The stalks were sorted according to their diameter, a process which was essential to produce an even plait, and cut to length between the joints to create usable straw of 9 – 10 inches / 225 – 250mm long. Although this preparation work was often carried out by the plaiters themselves, there was an increasing trade in supplying ready to use plaiting straw in 6 inch/150mm diameter bundles.
Producing Plaiting Straw
On the left, cleaning and cutting the straw to length and on the right sorting the straw by the diameter of the stem – each box has a grid of different sized holes. The chap of the left is sitting next to the completed bundles of prepared straw ready for sale.
The stems of straw were then split, a process much simplified when two French prisoners of war at Yaxley Barracks near Stilton made the first straw-splitter sometime between 1803 and 1806 during the Napoleonic wars. The splitters divided the straw into a number of strands or ‘splints’ as they were called, anything up to twenty ‘splints’ for the very finest work although up to seven was more usual. The splitting process also allowed the paler, matt inside of the stem to be worked into a pattern which contrasted with the darker and more glossy outside.
One of these splitters (shown here) can be seen on display in the museum and is an early example made from bone, later splitters were made from metal.
It was the splitting of the straw which changed the plait from a rough and ready rustic material into the fine quality product favoured by the fashion industry. The seven-end whole straw plait was the staple of the hat industry and the first to be taught to children.
After splitting the splints were wetted then flattened and softened using a rolling pin or a more expensive splint mill where hardwood rollers squeezed the splints (illustrated). The plaiter, almost always women and children, held a bundle of splints under her left arm, and each splint was drawn out and the end moistened between the lips before being worked into the plait. The work continued with new straws added to the weave and overlapped to trap them, until some twenty yards were produced, called a ‘score’ – the yard traditionally measured from the nose to the fingertip of an extended arm. The protruding part of the overlapping straws were trimmed with scissors or shears and the plait rolled until sufficiently flattened.
Straw plaiting brought a degree of independence for women; at times they could earn considerably more than the men. Plaiting did not require them to be at home or even to sit down and could be done whilst child-minding and in company. There were complaints by men in authority who found them less compliant than before, ‘it makes the poor saucy, and no servants can be procured, or any field-work done, where the manufacture established itself’ (Arthur Young, ‘General View of the Agriculture of the County of Hertfordshire’ 1804).
In the illustration the yet untrimmed overlapping splints can be seen sticking out of the plait.
Plaiting Schools were set up where parents would pay a few pence a week for their children to be taught the craft, together with (in theory) more traditional educational instruction. Children were soon capable of producing good plait and some at least were compelled to work for many hours a day to help supplement a families’ income.
There were many different types of plait with names like Feather Edge, Dunstable Twist, Whipcord, Rustic and Pearl. One of the most attractive was known as “Brilliant”. The shiny faces of single splints were set at an angle to one another, giving a kind of check effect. Brilliant needed considerable skill to make well and probably only those who had learnt it in childhood ever really mastered it. A fine Leghorn plait would normally use 13 splints – generally speaking the more splints used and the more complex the design, the greater the price that could be obtained.
Plait was often bleached – the plait was draped across bars inside a wooden box with an open base which was then placed over the glowing embers of charcoal to which a pinch of sulphur was added. As the trade developed the straw plaiters increasingly left the bleaching and colouring with dyes to the suppliers of straw or to the hat manufacturers.
In Coggeshall some plait went to the town’s own hat-makers but most of it was sold to dealers such as Thomas Linsell or Joseph Cornell, Plait Merchants from Halstead and they in turn sold it in the hat making centre of Luton.
Straw plaiting was killed off in the 1870s by a flood of cheaper imported plaits from Japan and China. Straw plaiting as an occupation virtually ceased and in Coggeshall as elsewhere many families who had come to rely on the trade returned to poverty. In 1882 there was a single Straw bonnet manufacturer, Frederick Lawrence, at work in Church Street Coggeshall and he was probably using imported plait.
To create a hat or bonnet the plaits had to be sewn together in a spiral, starting at the crown and finishing at the brim. This took considerable skill as the stitching needed be invisible and the hat approximately formed to the required shape. A sewing machine was eventually invented capable of doing the job but in towns like Coggeshall supplying a limited local market it is doubtful if such machines were affordable and hand stitching remained the norm. After stitching the hat would be pressed into a moulded former using steam to produce the finished shape.
Coggeshall’s Milliners would finish, decorate and sell the hats and bonnets with linings and ribbons from one of the many silk manufactories in the town. The milliners would have continued in business after the straw plait industry collapsed using imported plait from China and Japan. Kate Chilcot (see photo) with her shop in Church Street may have been the last of the Coggeshall milliners.
Straw-Plaiting – a lost Essex Industry, I Chalkley-Gould, Essex Naturalist, Vol. 14 p 184 (1905)
The Workwoman’s Guide from 1840 By ‘Workwoman’, AKA Lady Maria Wilson, Simkin Marshall & Co, 1838 (Google Books)
The Hat Industry of Luton and its Buildings, Katie Carmichael, David McOmish and David Grech, English Heritage, 2013
Imports, Mechanisation and the Decline of the English Plaiting Industry: the View from the Hatters’ Gazette, Luton 1873-1900, Catherine Robinson, 2016;
Children of Straw, Laszlo L Grof ,Barracuda Books, 1988
Leeds Mercury 24/12/1860