A CORNY SUBJECT
In a previous post I highlighted the Luton hatting industry and in particular the local plums, the skins of which were used for dyeing the felt. You can see that blog HERE.
In passing I mentioned the straw splitter, some of which have been found by detectorists. This simple device split the straw lengthwise to make pliable strands for plaiting so that they could be used to produce straw hats, straw pictures and other such cottage-industry items.
The straw plait industry was one of the main crafts in the South Midlands until the beginning of the 20th century. Men, women and children worked in their homes splitting straws. The plaiter would hold a bundle of damp, prepared straws under the left armpit and as she worked she would bend her head and pull out the new splints, moistening and working them round with the tongue to keep them pliable. As a result of removing the splints in this way, it would often cause scarring at the right-hand corner of her mouth.
During the late 17th century a more efficient splitter was invented. The Austin cutter, shown below, was made in Tring and offered a choice of splint sizes.
A pear-shaped wooden frame supported four or five holes each containing a metal cutter filed from a French nail, and the cutters split the straw into anything from three to nine pieces.
Plaiting was a cottage industry that helped to supplement the family income of low paid agricultural labourers by offering work to women and children.
If you detect around this area and you happen to come across an unusual device like the one shown above or even a lone cutter that has escaped from the Austin splitter, then you’ll immediately know what it is!
Coincidentally, Paul Manning recorded a straw splitter only yesterday, and has supplied a photograph. He also reports that in the same fields he has found very small thimbles, which suggests … John dons his battered archaeological fedora … that children were actually engaged in straw splitting in the fields. Thanks for that, Paul.