Never the Short Straw

The humble bale of straw. Grown for centuries as a remnant of the precious cereal crop, straw often is relegated to ‘by-product’ status. Indeed, straw is the stalk of wheat, rye, barley or oat, left behind after threshing the plant for its valuable grains. A multi-purpose product, for best value-added results the straw should be harvested earlier to reduce brittleness and fungal infection. Before assigning straw a low-end ‘by-product’ moniker, consider the material in a more comprehensive way. Straw has a variety of uses: Bedding is the most obvious. Seen in barns all over the world, straw is used as animal bedding for a variety of furry and not-so-furry creatures. Horses, for example, are fed hay, but those with super huge appetites are known to eat all their straw bedding as well during the night! Draft horses, those out pulling the plow and other farming machinery prior to the introduction of the tractor, wore collars stuffed with straw when tacked up in harness. Straw was also used for stuffing people’s mattresses, including inside solders’ barracks in World War Two. Rope is spun into various lengths, designs and thicknesses. Straw rope was used to hold bales together and ship packaged goods. Here’s an example of a straw rope maker’s tool: Archery Targets are often made of straw. Hitting the bullseye is satisfying when arrows thud into a densely packed straw target. Roofing Thatch is seen on thousands of tidy, little heritage cottages in Southern England. Roofs made of thatch translate into bundles or sheaves laid together across the roof’s courses and of course trimmed to form a neat edge at the ridges, eaves and dormers. Master craftspeople make thatch “finials”, straw ornaments of birds or other animals to place at the ridges of thatched roofs.

Crafts, hats and decorations are often made of straw, resulting in a myriad of accessory products people use in their everyday lives. From straw dolls for children to shopping baskets for adults, the list of possibilities is endless. One can purchase straw hats, purses, trivets, wall hangings, adornments and mats. Much of the smaller, detailed work is accomplished by braiding—also called plaiting—the straw. Other plant materials can also be used to create furniture, floor coverings and baskets such as willow, reeds and rushes; the selected source fiber depends upon the locality. For a wonderful showcase of straw art, click here:

Note that different types of cereal crops have different lengths of straw, thus making certain types more preferable for certain end uses. For example, roof thatchers need longer straw for their work. Softer straw is best for fabric stuffing, while stiffer straw is best for roof thatch. Hollow stems versus solid stems determine suitability for handicrafts.

Straw may appear to be a simple commodity and not worth a second thought. However, owing to its long history of successful use, it’s obvious that this agricultural product offers far more than the square or round bales seen out in fields. Family history encourages exploration of these interesting sidelines of times past, hoping to shed new light on slowly forgotten ways of life. Today, straw may not be inside your mattress, nor in the rope you use, but it does offer a wonderful part of our collective heritage that needs to be celebrated.

Sources: Staniforth, A., “Straw and Straw Craftsmen”, Shire Publications Ltd., Buckinghamshire, England, 1981.


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