Straw Art

In August, I took a class on straw weaving at the Fiber Arts Festival. This is something that has always fascinated me and looks so complicated. Plus, it is often thought of as a Scandinavian craft. Bear with me as I take you on my short journey and I promise to tie it back into needlework….you will be amazed! I sure was!

People throughout history have tried to use everything they can from a product including the stalks of grain. After the grain has been harvested from the stalk, straw remains. Since straw accounts for about half of the plant’s yield, it is important to find uses for it. For us in the Midwest, we often think of using straw in the garden or as bedding for pets and livestock. In other parts of the world it is used for thatching on roofs. Straw has been used as fuel also. However, technology has taken it to the next level and created briquettes which are used in biomass power plants in Europe. The briquettes are being substituted for coal as they are carbon-neutral. Throughout history and in many cultures straw has been mixed with different types of dirt and clay to create "cob" which is used as a building material. I can remember a time when straw-bale houses were the rage using bales to make up the walls or as insulation. You see a lot of small rolled bundles to help control erosion around road constructions. I am used to seeing big bales of straw here in the Midwest. However, here is one of the strangest things I saw in Norway.

They take the baling process one step further and wrap the bales in a white plastic. They call them "tractor eggs". For those who understand the baling process, the bundles are drier when baled and are treated with a chemical to keep them from smoldering and starting to burn internally after they are wrapped.

People have used straw for more hands-on activities such as plaiting for things like hats, marquetry on objects, braiding for baskets or decoration. Today we also think of corn dollies as cute holiday ornaments. However, they served a much more important role in pagan cultures. The word "corn" encompasses all forms of grain in many parts of the world. There was a spirit connected to the corn and it lived in the crop. When the crop was harvested the spirit had no where to live. If it became homeless it might not return to oversee the next year’s crop. So, the farmer carefully harvested the last portion of the crop preserving both the seed pods and stalk as this is where they believed the corn spirit lived. Many cultures created idols out of that last bit of harvested grain. Often the idols represented "mothers" or "old woman" but they did not necessarily look like a person. Here is the one I made in my straw weaving class.

These creations were taken into the home and often prominently displayed. When the new crop was planted the idol was either plowed back into the field or the seed pods harvested and added to the seeds being planted. This insured the spirit of the field returned to oversee the new crop. Over time various cultures expanded on this practice so that straw gifts were given as good luck tokens for fertility or a blessed home.

Industrialization has taken a toll on needlearts as we have discussed before. The invention of mechanized harvest equipment and the genetic altering of grain to shorten the stalks almost led to the extinction of straw weaving in the mid-1900’s. However, due to efforts of a few people in England, the United States, and Belarus, this art form is alive and thriving today!

Straw art has evolved into three main categories – weaving/plaiting, marquetry, and Swiss straw embroidery. Marquetry is like wood inlay. The straw strips are flattened and sometimes dyed. Then strips can be put together to create large pieces. Martha Stewart has a project on line to create a picture frame with strips of straw. Or little pieces of straw are cut and put in place like a mosaic to create elaborate designs and pictures. Here is an example I found in a book in my personal collection: Decorative Straw Craft by Barbara Fitch. This book is available from used book sellers.

The class I took was on traditional straw weaving. I learned four different types of braids or plaits in class. However, there are MANY more braids and variations. It was interesting that it was very similar to the lanyard braiding I did in scouts to create round and square braids. I was amazed at how quickly the braiding went; however, it does take some hand strength and muscles that aren’t normally used in stitching!! We were able to create these two projects in our 3-hour class. Here is my smaller project.

I also found that some braids were similar to Kumihimo but you don’t use the boards. Here are a couple of resources to get you started in basic braiding designs.

Our instructor teaches at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis and she had brought a display of some of her work. That’s when I got really excited! Her passion is Swiss Straw Art which I had never heard of. This is embroidery and embellishment with straw. It gets its name because it was primarily done in Switzerland particularly in Wohlen. The first Swiss straw trading company began in 1787. This company had a very long and profitable life, finally closing in 1991! Descendants from the original founder, Jacob Isler, helped found the Wohlen Straw Museum that preserves the history of this unique art form. The closest technique I can think of is Victorian Hair Work where lengths of hair are intricately woven into flowers, leaves, and other 3-D elements. I never thought you could accomplish such delicate elements out of pieces of straw. Here is an example of this style of Swiss straw work.

One of the most popular elements is called "spreuers" which are leaf shapes. These are made using a very specialized tool-a dog comb! First, you have to recreate the flat strips. Straw is actually hollow so you need to split the stalk. You can do this with a craft knife, but it is so much easier to use a special tool called a splitter. Once you get a bunch of strips cut, you are ready to begin. I found a great origami site that shows you how to make some of these leaves with paper strips.

However, we have to move on so I can show how it ties into embroidery. Using very thin strips of straw you can actually spin them into thread which is used in many of the same ways as regular thread. One popular technique is needle lace. Here is part of a straw embroidery sampler.

Check out this website for more photos of threads and examples. Here is a straw flower created with a special three-needle tool. This photo is from the Straw Art Museum website.

It was incredible to learn that these designs can be sewn onto clothing! You can embroider on the same types of fabrics as regular embroidery, such as silk or cotton. The main difference is your straw thread will be wet so be sure your fabric won’t retain water spots when dried or problems with color fastness. Tapestry and crewel needles are used to stitch. You have to have a needle eye large enough to create a hole for the straw to pass through. If the hole is too small, the straw can split where you don’t want it to. For many of the stitched designs you will need a cotton or linen thread the color of the straw.

You can use many of the same stitches for straw work. A popular stitch is a raised darning stitch. The splints are brought up through the fabric and the darning is done above the fabric. The satin stitch can also have a dramatic effect. Wheat straw is the shiniest straw, so you can experiment with different straws like rye and oat, and the outside or inside of the splint, to get different colors and sheen. Straw also can be dyed. The straw splints and threads work well with all couching techniques and patterns. Another technique is done exactly like porcupine quill work. This website gives some examples of how to do porcupine quillwork. Many of the techniques shown on this website are similar to straw work with the flat straw pieces. Here is an example of straw embroidery from the Wohlen museum.

I am continually amazed at what stitchers from other cultures and eras accomplished with the materials they had available. How amazing is it that one culture would think to use porcupine quills as embellishment while another culture could accomplish the same effect with the stalks of grain? The whole spectrum of straw weaving fascinates me and I admit I have added a few technique books to my library. I would love to try some more weaving, but what would I quit doing…..where would I get the time….what would I do with the pieces……??? At least I have a better appreciation of this art form. Hopefully, you have found out something interesting as well.

While staying with my Norwegian hosts, I was able to watch Erik making "corn bundles" to sell at Christmas. These bundles are made from the whole stalk of oats so not only are they decorative but the birds can enjoy the seeds also. Erik uses the old-fashioned method of harvesting. Here is Erik using his scythe to cut down the stalks. Then he gathers a large group of stalks and ties them with several other stalks of oats. There are two ways to dry them. You can stand them up, leaning them together into a sheaf. Or you can drive a pole into the ground and thread the bundles onto the pole. Nikolina and Nordet thought it was fun to jump on the horizontal pile.

You can create your own corn bundle in cross stitch with this card kit Tomten Feeding the Birds (205-558-0010).

We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!

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1 thought on “Straw Art

  1. Thank you for this wonderful article! I really appreciate learning about this as it very much interests me as both a gardener and a stitcher. Terrific!

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