Since the beginning of civilization, people all over the world have used grains to enhance their surroundings. Ancient Egyptians pressed wheat heads into the walls of clay pots, and the heat of firing burned out the wheat, leaving the design in the finished pot. Throughout human history, grains with hollow stems or stalks that could be spliced or joined have been plaited, braided, or spiraled into useful and decorative objects. Straws were tied and bent into animals, human figures, and other symbolic forms.
The art of braiding or plaiting straw (referred to as “corn” in Europe and Asia) is steeped in folklore, tradition, myth, and spiritual beliefs. It originated mainly in the old peasant cultures of Europe, Scandinavia, and China, where people believed that if a small amount of grain from a successful harvest were preserved over the winter and planted again the following year, the next harvest also would be plentiful. Wheat was often a symbol of fertility, and in many traditional harvest festivals, the season’s last sheaf of grain was formed into the shape of a woman, symbolically dressed and decorated, and ceremoniously transported to a place of honor in the belief that the harvest spirit lived within this “corn dolly.” Gifts of artfully woven “corn” were symbols of friendship and good wishes.
As the combine and mechanical harvesting began to revolutionize wheat farming in the late nineteenth century, the tradition and art of making corn dollies nearly died out in the more developed countries. However, the early 1950s saw a revival of the craft in England. Classes were offered, new books written and old books reprinted, and making corn dollies became a craze, although it was now a form of decoration rather than a fertility rite. In the early 1970s, a Kansas woman named Doris Johnson encountered corn dollies in England and brought the techniques back to her wheat-growing home state. The craft took off like wildfire in Kansas, and its popularity soon spread to other Wheat Belt states. The National Association of Wheat Weavers was organized in Kansas in 1986, and state and local organizations now also exist in Illinois and California.
Today, anything made with grain straws is referred to as a corn dolly in areas outside the United States. However, the term “wheat weaving” was coined in 1974 because of widespread confusion between corn dollies, which are made from wheat, and corn husk dolls, which are made from corn husks and were quite popular in the same area of the United States. Wheat weaving is now the American term for corn dolly.
Harvesting and Processing Wheat
Many varieties of wheat are grown in the United States, but most are bred for grain production rather than wheat weaving. The best wheat for weaving generally is hard red winter wheat, which has long first joints (18 to 26 inches, measured from the bottom of the seed head), well-proportioned heads, and golden to creamy straw. If you’d like to grow your own wheat, you’ll find details on page 30. Growers who produce wheat specifically for wheat weaving are listed at the end of this article.
Wheat for weaving is cut before the seeds have dried sufficiently for commercial grain harvest. To determine when to harvest, pinch a seed or two from a couple of plants with your fingernails or your teeth. If the seed is milky, wait a few days, but check often. When the seeds are soft and doughy, rather like unchewed chewing gum, it’s time to check for the other signs of readiness. The wheat should be golden from the tip of the head to the first joint; the lower joints, including the one closest to the ground, should be a little green above and below; and everything else should be golden. The beards or awns—the long bristles that stick up out of the seed head—should be close to the kernel and pointing straight up.
On harvest day, wait until noon or later to be sure all the dew has evaporated. Then put on heavy gloves, cut the wheat (I use hedge clippers) just below the second joint, and lay it on top of the stubble to dry in the sun. Just before sundown, gather the stalks into bundles no larger than 6 inches in diameter. Tie each bundle tightly below the first joints with yarn, cord, or old panty hose, and hang the bundles upside down in a dry, mouseproof, and bugproof place.
Dry the wheat for at least a week under cover, longer if the weather becomes cold and wet. Turn the bundles each day to expose all sides to the air. Don’t let the wheat get wet again until you’re ready to work with it.
After the wheat is dry, cut the stalk just above the first joint and discard the flag leaf (the one that’s attached at the first joint). Also discard the lower part of the stem unless your design calls for it. Set aside any prepared straws that have brassy, deep yellow rain stains and discard any wheat whose heads are black and sooty (unless you are working with black-awned wheat) or whose stems have black stains. If you’re not going to use the prepared straws right away, store them in a clean box or plastic bag.
Before dry wheat can be woven, it must be dampened thoroughly so it will be flexible. A sturdy planter tray from a garden shop or a heavy-duty wallpaper tray from the hardware store are good containers for soaking wheat, but any stiff tray will do if it’s a little longer than your straws; some people use the bathtub. Place the straws in the tray, cover them with a towel, then add lukewarm water until the straws are covered. Soak only the amount of wheat you’ll use in one session. When the straws have been submerged for 20 to 30 minutes, remove the towel, wring it out, and lay it out on a flat, waterproof surface. Pour the water off the wheat and spread the straws parallel on the towel, then roll up the towel around them. Let this bundle sit for about 30 minutes to allow more moisture to permeate the wheat.
Stalks with brassy yellow rain stains can be soaked for three to four hours in full-strength white vinegar to remove the stains before the water soak. The vinegar will not be contaminated by the stained wheat; it can be reused for the same purpose.
Soaking large quantities (as many as 100 straws) at once saves some time if you are doing a lot of wheat weaving. After soaking and wrapping them in a wet towel, you can slip the wrapped bundle into a plastic kitchen bag and freeze it. When you’re ready to use the straws, just cover them with warm water; they’ll thaw in a matter of minutes. Whatever straw you don’t use in a session can be rewrapped in the towel and refrozen or dried before storing; straw that’s stored wet can become weak and discolored, and the seed heads may sprout. Even with the best care, wheat begins to deteriorate after it’s been refrozen or resoaked more than about three times.
When you tie wheat straws together, tie them on the smooth part of the straw just below the heads. Almost any knot will do, but the traditional and recommended knot is a clove hitch locked in place by an overhand knot.
In many ways, straw is an ideal craft material. It’s a part of nature, it doesn’t pollute, and it lends itself to original, handmade crafts. If you’re like me, you won’t be able to stop wheat weaving once you get started; you’ll have wheat everywhere, and you’ll devour every available book on the subject. The craft evolved from old-country techniques, and the old designs are still admired and appreciated; well-made wheat weavings often become family heirlooms. Although I’ve known a few people who “don’t want those weeds” in their homes, a unique handcrafted gift from the breadbasket of the world cannot be surpassed.
Gini Sharp of Wichita, Kansas, is a past president of the National Association of Wheat Weavers and founder of the Wichita Wheat Weavers Guild. She has received many awards for wheat weaving, and her work has been publicized on television and in several newspapers.