Corn dollies were also made as a badge of trade at hiring fairs, where men and women would decorate them with a wisp of wool or horse hair to signify that they were a shepherd, for example, or a waggoner.

The instructions for this simple Four-straw Compass Plait come from Gillian Nott, of the Guild of Straw Craftsmen.

What you’ll need

For this simple decoration you’ll need four hollow stems of wheat. You can either cut these yourself with shears or a sickle, having obtained with permission from the farmer, or contact a local thatcher, who will have sheaves cut by a reaper or binder (combine harvested corn won’t work). Read this advice from the Guild of Straw Craftsmen on the best stems to use.

Simply Straw offers a mail order service for corn stems.

You should also prepare the straw by soaking it in warm water until it’s pliable enought to plait, fold twist or bend without splitting or cracking. The amount of time varies between several hours and over night, depending on the weather conditions the wheat experienced during its growing season.

You’re best to check them every half an hour, to test if the butt ends can be bent without cracking. When they’re suitably pliable, remove the straws from the water, drain off excess mositure, and wrap them a damp towel, which will prevent them from drying out while you’re working.

Instructions

  1. Use a piece of tough thread – such as button thread or fine crochet cotton – to tie four straws together with a clove hitch just under the heads. (If you’re not familiar with the clove hitch knot, watch this animated instruction.)
  2. Plait until you have about 8cms of straw left.
  3. Bring the four straws up to meet each other, and tie firmly at the end of the plaited section with another clove hitch.
  4. Bring this tie down to meet the other tie just under the heads, to form a loop of plaited straw, and tie the two together.
  5. Spread the wheat ears out between the wheat stalks and allow to dry flat, preferably under a weight.
  6. When dry, you can clip the stalk ends decoratively, and add a ribbon bow or a small sprig of dried flowers.

Once your plaiting is completed and the straw has dried out, you’ll find that your piece of straw work will hold its shape in whatever design you have made, and will be virtually indestructible.

Because it was common practice to break up corn dollies from the previous year and sow its grains in the spring with the new planting, it’s unusual to see many old ones around. However, a couple in one Devonshire church, at Martinhoe, are reputed to date from 1897 and 1916.

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