Nominated by: Veronica Main
This simple tool, just 7cm long, provided a route away from abject poverty for many thousands of Buckinghamshire families during the 1800s. It split a whole straw into narrow splints that were then plaited into long lengths to be made into hats. These narrow, split straw plaits could earn their makers a decent income during the winter months when work on the land was not possible. In some villages known for the quality of work, plaiters could earn a living throughout the whole year.
The straw splitter was made of iron or brass by local village blacksmiths who would produce them with different numbers of cutting fins. A splitter could be made with any number from three to sixteen cutting fins. The plaiter usually worked with splints between 1-2mm wide and produced plait patterns requiring from three up to 34 ends worked as 17 pairs.
To use a splitter the long point is inserted into the hollow straw, then the cutting fins are pushed to start the cutting process. Once about 5cm of the straw has been split the straw ends are grasped and the remaining length of the straw pulled over the cutting fins. It is a quick and effective method of cutting a straw and its introduction revolutionised the plaiting industry.
When plaited, split straw can be worked to create a pattern showing the inside and outside of the straw. The plaits are lightweight and once dyed straws were introduced into the plait, a wide variety of colour patterns were created. These plaits required greater skill and took longer to make, but their makers earned a higher price since split straw plaits were very fashionable and in high demand. One of the Buckinghamshire specialities was a plait called ‘Brilliant’. The County Museum has several examples made by local women. Although museum examples are usually just short pieces, plait was made in ten or twenty-yard lengths for sale to a plait dealer, who then would sell it on to a hat manufacturer.
Close examination of a splitter indicates its hidden history. Notice how the long guiding point has worn down or bent, look for the indentations along the cutting edge of the metal fins where the straw has worn away the metal. Observe the missing or broken fins, often lost through constant use. The wear tells us that this tool was used over and over again.
Today the skills of straw plaiting have practically disappeared in the county. It is a Critically Endangered Craft listed on the Heritage Crafts Association Red List and yet it was a such an important trade for ordinary Bucks families. All that survives are the objects in museum collections. For me, the tools and products of the county’s industrial history bring to life those long forgotten past residents of our villages. That is why I find this un-assuming metal tool is so important. Volunteers working on the Woodlanders Lives and Landscapes, part of the Chilterns Conservation Board’s Chalk, Cherries and Chairs project, are researching the lives of straw plaiters in the central Chilterns, find out more on the Woodlanders Lives and Landscapes website.
The Straw Splitter was nominated by Veronica Main, Straw Plaiter and Hat Industry Historian