Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Straw Manufactures

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STRAW MANUFACTURES. Straw forms the raw material of some not unimportant industries. It serves for the thatching of roofs, for a paper-making material, for ornamenting small surfaces as a “straw mosaic,” for plaiting into door and table mats, mattresses, &c., and for weaving and plaiting into light baskets, artificial flowers, &c. These applications, however, are insignificant in comparison with the place occupied by straw as a raw material for the straw bonnets and hats worn by both sexes. Of the various materials which go to the fabrication of plaited head-gear the most important is wheaten straw. It is only in certain areas that straw suitable for making plaits is produced. The straw must have a certain length of “pipe” between the knots, must possess a clear delicate golden colour, and must not be brittle. The most valuable straw for plaits is grown in Tuscany, and from it the well-known Tuscan plaits and Leghorn hats are made. The straw of Tuscany, specially grown for plaiting, is distinguished into three qualities, — Pontederas Semone being the finest, Mazzuolo the second quality, from which the bulk of the plaits are made, while from the third quality, Santa Fioro, only “Tuscan pedals” and braids are plaited. The wheat-seed for these straws is sown very thickly on comparatively elevated and arid land, and it sends up long attenuated stalks. When the grain in the ear is about half developed the straw is pulled up by the roots, dried in the sun, and subsequently spread out for several successive days to be bleached under the influence of alternate sunlight and night-dews. The pipe of the upper joint alone is selected for plaiting, the remainder of the straw being used for other purposes. These pipes are made up in small bundles, bleached in sulphur fumes in a closed chest, assorted into sizes, and so prepared for the plaiters. Straw plaiting is a domestic industry among the women and young children of Tuscany and some parts of Emilia. Tuscan plaits and hats vary enormously in quality and value; the plait of a hat of good quality may represent the work of four or five days, while hats of the highest quality may each occupy six to nine months in making. The finest work is excessively trying to the eyes of the plaiters, who can at most give to it two or three hours' labour daily. The exports of plaits and manufactured hats from Leghorn average in value £480,000 annually, about one half of the goods going to America.

The districts around Luton in Bedfordshire and the neighbouring counties have, since the beginning of the 17th century, been the British home of the straw-plait industry. The straw of certain varieties of wheat cultivated in that region is, in favourable seasons, possessed of a fine bright colour and due tenacity and strength. The straw is cut as in ordinary harvesting, but is allowed to dry in the sun before binding. Subsequently straws are selected from the sheaves, and of these the pipes of the two upper joints are taken for plaiting. The pipes are assorted into sizes by passing them through graduated openings in a grilled wire frame, and those of good colour are bleached by the fumes of sulphur. Spotted and discoloured straws are dyed either in pipe or in plait. The plaiters work up the material in a damp state, either into whole straw or split straw plaits. Split straws are prepared with the aid of a small instrument having a projecting point which enters the straw pipe, and from which radiate the number of knife-edged cutters into which the straw is to be split. The plaiting of straw in the Luton district formerly gave employment to many thousands of women and young children; but now vast quantities of plaits are imported at a very cheap rate from Canton in China. The result is that, while the Luton trade is extending, the number of persons it there gives occupation is greatly diminished. In 1871 about 50,000 persons were employed in the straw industry, and in 1881 the number was only about 31,000. The plaits are sewed partly by hand and in a special sewing-machine, and the hats or bonnets are finished by stiffening with gelatin size, and blocking into shape with the aid of heat and powerful pressure, according to the dictates of fashion. The annual output of the straw-plait industry in England is estimated to amount in value to about £4,000,000.

In the United States straw-plait work is principally centred in the State of Massachusetts.

Many substances besides straw are worked into plaits and braids for bonnets. Among these may be noticed thin strips of willow and cane, and the fronds of numerous palms. “Brazilian” hats made from the fronds of the palmetto palms, Sabal Palmetto and S. mexicana, are now largely made at St Albans. The famous Panama hats, fine qualities of which at one time were worth £20 to £30 each, are made from the leaves of the screw pine, Carludovica palmata. They are now manufactured at Dresden, Strasburg, and Nancy, and can be purchased at 30s. or £2.