When the last fall grain harvest was gathered in, ancient farmers in Europe (from England to the Baltics) always kept a few sheaves aside to be woven into “corn dollies,” shapes and figures thought to manifest the spirit of grain. Called the corn mother in Northern Europe, the hag in Ireland, and the corn maiden in parts of England, the spirit inhabited the fertile fields, and once the grain was harvested, needed a place to dwell until replanting time in the spring. Those final sheaves kept her spirit alive through the fallow winter.
Despite their name (corn evolved from ‘kern,’ the old English word for grain, and “dolly” is thought to have evolved from “idol”), corn dollies weren’t made of corn and didn’t always resemble the human form. More often, they were interpreted as circles, hearts, loops, goats, and stars that could be displayed in the home during the dormant winter, then plowed back into the earth in spring. When modern mechanical threshers came into use, the art of making corn dollies was almost lost. But in the past few decades, it has experienced a revival, usually under the name of wheat weavings,
Waverly published an article about wheat weaving in this magazine last year. You can also interpret the spirit of the grain in your own way. We chose to make ours look a bit like a proud, wild goddess with a head and hands of seedheads and a corn husk dress. This style is easy to make with older children, although an adult should be present for wire cutting.
Start with a four-ounce bundle of wheat and cut the seedheads off, leaving a little of the stalk intact for a base. Separate the taller seedheads from the shorter ones, then make two piles of short ones for the hands and one pile of big ones for the head. Wire the seedheads into bundles with 22 to 24-gauge wire.
Soak the long stalks for a few hours so that they’re pliable, then cut two piles of stalks: one for the body and one for the arms. Bind off each pile at each end, then wire the ‘hands’ to the end of the arms, the ‘head’ to the top of the body, and the arms to the body. Hide the wire under raffia. Cut a piece of paper and secure into a cone shape. Anchor body in the cone either by poking wire through the paper and wrapping it around the body stalk or any other method that works for you. Now you can make the dress. We used corn husks and pinned them to the paper cone. This is just one simple way to make a corn dolly without being skilled at wheat weaving. Even without those skills, my daughter and I felt like we were taking part in an ancient tradition as we made our dolly.
Joanne O’Sullivan writes about art, culture, and traveling with kids from her home in Asheville, North Carolina. She can be reached through her blog, the Wanderlists.
Photo taken by Jo Sullivan: a corn dolly in front of a chocolate cosmos. First published August 29, 2010.