Sometimes as I have said before knowing the cultural background of the person to whom you are speaking is as important as what you are trying to say. When I come across interesting cultural items I will blog them here so that after a while hopefully we will all have a more global view of various cultures.
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 interested me this morning as I love autumn and the colours of browns, oranges, deep reds etc and whilst I know what a corn dolly looks like and know that even in UK history they have been around I never considered that they were any more than a decoration. It was great to open my eyes to this information from a sewing blog called Nordic Needles.
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.
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.
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.
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. Or little pieces of straw are cut and put in place like a mosaic to create elaborate designs and pictures.
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.
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. Erik uses 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.
People Making a Difference
There are several different organizations and museums dedicated to trying to keep straw work alive. The work, past and present, are incredible!
- The American Museum of Straw Art
- The Straw Shop Gallery
- Guild of Straw Craftsmen (United Kingdom)
- National Association of Wheat Weavers
- Belorussian Straw Work
Before I share the recipe, let me give you some wheat facts from the Wheat Foods Council:
Wheat was first planted in the United States n 1777 as a hobby crop. Kansas is the largest wheat producer in the United States and North Dakota is a close second. That means Kansas produces enough wheat each year to back 36 BILLION loaves of bread and enough to feed everyone in the world for about 2 weeks! Wheat is sold by bushels. A bushel contains approximately one million kernels and weights about 60 pounds. A bushel of wheat makes about forty-five 24-ounce boxes of wheat flake cereal.
One of the foods I had at almost every meal in Norway was flatbrød. I have been in search of a good recipe. There is one in the Farm Recipes and Food Secrets from the Norske Nook (970-753-0502) but it uses Quaker oats. There are several types of flat bread and I like the kind that is really thin with not much flavor, but a lot of crunch. I came across this extremely basic recipe and it indicated this was a very old recipe. It also is really close to what the woman was making in the fireplace at the Folkmuseum.
You cut the lard into the flour and salt until the lumps are fairly small. Then you add just enough water to make a heavy dough. Roll the dough out as thin as possible. Fry on a griddle. Let it cool. Then you want to put it in an air-tight container and store in a dry place