Making corn or straw dollies is an ancient craft that has survived the centuries.
It was believed that the spirit living in the harvest field would die as soon as the last of the wheat was cut and be born in the woven dolly.
You do not have to live near a wheat field to make these models - you can use paper unwaxed straws instead of the real thing.
They are slightly easier to use than natural straw as they are more consistent in size and do not need 'tempering'.
Paper straw shapes are fun for everyone in the family and can easily be mastered by children as young as five year old.
Straw dollies made of natural straw, are a little harder to master, but are aesthetically pleasing and can become heirlooms of a traditional craft.
Rye is preferable, as it is long and tough, but wheat, oat or barley straw may be used.
Conditioning Natural Straw
Only new-cut straw, damp from the field, can be used without 'tempering'.
Before working with natural straw, cut the straws to even lengths, leaving the heads on somewhere this is required for the decorative effect.
Lay the straw in a long container of water to soak and then run through a piece of old cloth to remove excess moisture before weaving.
Do not work in front of a fire, or in very hot sunshine or the straws will become too brittle and snap.
Following are the basic instructions for weaving the straw.
Weaving Round a 'Former'
This is the base of your work. It is used when you require a "former" in making the dolls that will follow in this article.
- Tie five straws, either paper or natural, firmly together at one end, and then tie halfway up with thread.
- Fan out the free ends of straws.
- With left hand, hold straws so the fastened ends face upwards.
- This is the former or core (Figure 1).
- Take the straw nearest you, A, and pass it counter-clockwise over straws B & C, laying it against the central former (Figure 2).
- Move the work a quarter turn clockwise so that Straw C, the last one you went over, is nearest to you.
- Holding straw A lightly in position against the former with your thumb, take straw C over straws B & E, again holding it against the core (Figure 3).
- Repeat, so that the straw C is held against former and straw E, the last straw you went over, is passed over straws C & D.
- Continue in this way, always taking the last straw you went over and passing it over the next two until the former is covered.
This enables you to make a shape without using a former.
- Take five straws and fasten about ¾ inch from one end.
- Start weaving, using the short ends as a former.
When you first start to do free weaving, it may feel a little awkward.
But if you keep at it, you will soon learn how to control the shape of the model.
Creating the different shapes is fun and easy to do once you get the hang of it.
Following will show you how to widen the model and reduce the model as needed.
To widen the model:
- Pass the straw over the first and lay it alongside the second straw (Figure 4).
- Next draw the second straw back towards you; then bring it over the first one into position alongside the next straw (Figure 5).
To reduce the width,
- Take the straw completely over the next two straws and lay it slightly inside the second straw.
- Reduce gradually to avoid a loosely woven look (Figure 6).
To Join Straws
To join on additional paper straws, make a slit in the end of a new straw and roll between your fingers to taper the end.
Slot this tapered end into the worked straw.
A spot of clear adhesive will help to keep the join firm (Figure 7).
To join natural straws, cut the end slantwise and push narrow end of one into wide end of the other.
To Finish off the Model
Simply tuck the last straws under the one on which they would have rested.
Glue into position (Figure 8).
To Color the Straws
Paper straws are made from untreated paper and so will take color easily. The models can be painted or sprayed either before or after they are made up.
Now that you have a basic knowledge of the weaving, lets try some patterns.
We'll start with an easy one, a Bridget Cross and then move on to some more traditional dolls.
How to Weave a Bridget Cross
This symbolic shape, used in Irish churches for harvest festival, is an exercise in flat weaving (Figure 9).
You will need: scissors or a knife; four heads of wheat; two thick straws; some thinner straws, for weavers; natural-colored thread.
- Cut the two thick straws of equal length, from the base of the straw. (The ones used in the illustration were 6 inches long).
- Cut the weavers from the top of the straws and trim them. Hold the thick straw in a cross shape.
- Lay the thin end of the weaver over the join, pointing diagonally down towards the right; hold with your thumb.
- Imagine the thick straws lettered A at the bottom, B on the right, C at the top and D on the left.
- Bring the weaver under A from right to left and up over the center; under B from top to bottom and up over the center; under C from left to right and down over the center; under D from the bottom to top and down over the center.
You will quickly get the rhythm of this weave, almost like figure 8 above.
- To add new straws, push the thin end of a new one into the end of the working straw.
- Repeat the weave until about ¼ inch from the ends of the cross.
- Twist weaver three times round last one to be worked and bind with thread.
- Trim four heads of wheat to give stems 1 inch to 1½ inches long. Push one stem into the end of each arm of the cross.
- Bind with thread.
- Tie on a thread loop to hang.
How to Weave Other Traditional Straw Dolls
What you will need
- Hollow straw for weaving, some with heads left on
- Long container & water
- Piece of cloth
- Ball-point pen
- Raffia & large-eyed needle
- ¼ Inch wide red ribbon
- A few dried peas
- Dried flowers & grasses for cornucopia
How to Weave the Neck Dolly
- Cut eighteen straws just above the first leaf node, leaving on the heads (Figure 1).
- Cut several weaver straws without heads.
- Soak and wipe the straws.
- Shape the eighteen straws into a bundle, arrange them so that the heads fan out well, and tie them close to the heads.
- Work with the heads held downwards.
- Pull down five of the straws, equally spaced round the bundle, until they lie out horizontal from the binding.
- Trim the length of the bundle as required (this one was 9½ inches long)
- Tie the straws at the top (Figure 2).
- Weave as described in the general instructions at beginning of this hub.
- Continue until you reach the top of the inner core, then bring the weave closer and closer together in the center to cover it (Figure 3).
To complete the loop, you will need weavers at least 8 inches long.
- Join in new ones if necessary.
- Work in the same weaving sequence, but his time, without a center core, make a close-textured 'rope'.
- When the straws are nearly used up, bend the rope into a loop, open out a space in the weaving near the top of the doll, and push the ends of the loop through (Figure 4).
- Secure neatly with raffia.
- Tie a bow of narrow red ribbon just above the heads.
How to Weave the Spiral Twist
- For the core and the first five weavers, cut eighteen straws, complete with heads, 20 inches long (this measurement taken just above the heads).
- Tie the straws and pull out five weaving straws as described for the neck dolly.
- Work in the weave pattern for 9½ inches, gradually increasing the diameter of the work.
- Then reverse the spiral braid.
- To do this, re-letter the straws, clockwise this time, and follow the same sequence, but working from left to right.
- After each weave, give the dolly a quarter turn anti-clockwise now.
- Gradually bring in the weave again until at the top it is close to the core.
- Cover the core and work the loop just as for the neck dolly.
For the ring decoration:
- Cut five straws without heads, tie them together ¾ inch from the ends and work a close braid for the handle.
- Continue until it measures 12 inches.
- Trim ends and tuck them in neatly to form a circle.
For the 'favor':
- Make a 2-braid.
- Cut two straws and tie them together just above the heads.
- Hold with the left hand where the straws are tied and pull one straw out to make an L shape (Figure 5).
- Take the horizontal straw A up and over straw B, then down to the left-hand side, keeping the straws close together (Figure 6).
- Give the work a quarter turn clockwise. Fold straw B up and over A, as before.
- Continue this way, turning the braid between each weave, until it measures about 4 inches.
- Trim the ends, bind with thread and twist the braid into a bow.
- Attach the braid and the ring in the center of the dolly.
- Finish with two red ribbons.
How to Weave the Rattle
Cut the straws, soak and wipe them as usual. You do not need any with heads for this design.
- Take two strong straws and tie five others round them (Figure 7).
- Pull out the five weaving straws, just below the tie, ready for braiding.
- Tie again, about ½ inch below the first threads (Figure 8).
- Work the 5-braid as before, gradually increasing the width until, after about 4 inches, the doll measures 4 inches across.
- Then gradually decrease the width, until after 7 inches, the weave is close to the center core.
- Drop a few dried peas for the rattle.
- Continue this close rope-like braid for the handle until the work measures a total of 14 inches.
- Close the weave over the core at the top and trim and tuck in ends.
- Tie a red ribbon bow in the center.
How to Weave the Cornucopia
- Start a normal 5-braid, without a central core.
- Work a close weave for the first inch, then gradually open out the work until, when it measures 6-7 inches in length, it is 4 inches across the top.
- Bend into a curved shape as you go. When the straws are wet they are flexible enough to do this.
- Work a 5-braid rope (as for the ring decoration on the spiral twist) and sew this round the top.
- Tuck in the ends of the work at the bottom.
- Cut and flatten three fine straws and make an ordinary braid with them for 6-7 inches.
- Attach this at the bottom and just below the ring at the top.
- Finish with a red bow and fill with dried grasses and straw daisies.
Some More Doll Weaving
What you will need
- Long container & water
- Natural-colored & red thread
- Natural-colored raffia
- ¼ inch wide red ribbon
- Dried grasses - Cereal heads - Flowers
- Black felt pen or black ink
Man in Armor
The figure stands 14½ inches in height. Prepare as usual and tie just below the heads.
- Cut 10 straws with heads.
- Pull out 5 as weavers and work the head, 2½ inches deep, gradually widening.
- Leave while you make the arms.
- Tie another 5 straws together,¼ inch from one end, and work a narrow spiral for 9 inches.
- Tie ends and trim to finish off.
- Push the arm piece up against the head, carry some weaving straws in front and some behind, and then continue the 5-braid for the body, about 4 inches long, gradually widening.
- Work the legs as for the arms.
- Tie a red ribbon bow around the neck.
The Sea Horse
The straw model is 15 inches in height.
It is made with the usual 5-braid spiral, starting off with very fine straws worked into a close rope, and then fanning out until, at the fattest part. It measures 2½ inches in diameter.
After that, the work is drawn closer again and bent as it proceeds to give the shape of the head.
The eyes are made of natural raffia in buttonhole stitch.
For the fin:
- Lay nine 3 inch straws and eight 2 inch straws alternately, top ends level.
- Thread together with natural colored thread, drawing in at the bottom to make a fan shape.
- Tie to the widest part of the creature.
The figure measures 8½ inches in height.
- Prepare the straws as usual.
- Make a central cor 6½ inches long, tying it top and bottom.
- Flatten a group of straws and wrap them over the core for the head, face and body as shown.
- Make a 5-braid strip 10½ inches long, for the arms, increasing the width for shoulders.
- Tie at each end.
- Push this arm section through the core about 1½ inches from the top.
To make the skirt:
- Loop 2 straws over one shoulder and 3 over the other, and begin a 5-straw spiral, working at first with both ends of the straws, double thickness, to secure.
- Fan out the spiral to form the skirt.
- Make a miniature cornucopia for the bonnet.
- Make a a bowl-shaped open 5-plait for the basket:
- Tie a small bunch of dried grasses etc. to wrist and arm, red ribbon round wrists and waist and red thread round her face.
- Mark features with black pen.
- Tie bonnet into position.
This is just the beginning of what you can do when you are weaving with straws.
Take your time and practice until you are comfortable working with the different weaves.
Thanks for stopping by & Happy Crafting!
© 2013 Dawn
Chrissa Campbell, Marietta Ohio on May 20, 2020:
What an awesome article! I strongly believe in passing down crafting- it is one of the back bones of culture & heritage. It is important that people record knowledge like this so it is not completely lost. Thank you! I also was really glad Morgyn Owens-Celli commented & I was able to go check out his biography & more of his work :D
Morgyn Owens-Celli on June 12, 2019:
It would be nice if you credited me for the Sentinel and the Ivy Girl of Kent.
joetta welch on December 06, 2014:
Would love to learn that craft.