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.
by Waverly Fitzgerald
[Excerpt from the Lammas holiday packet available at our store]
Many years ago I was in Aberystwyth in Wales on Lammas. I hadn’t planned any special activity for this, my favorite seasonal holiday, but I had gleaned some wheat stalks a few weeks earlier from a field near Rose Cottage (the home of my favorite novelist, Elizabeth Goudge, who lived outside Henley-on-Thames).
I didn’t have any instructions for wheat-weaving with me. All I remembered was that I had to soak the wheat, which I did in a bathtub, releasing that wonderful nutty aroma from the stalks. Then I wove it into a simple plait which I tied in a loop with a strand of orange yarn. That primitive wheat weaving came back across the ocean to Seattle and for over a year sat above my stove, my very own harvest spirit, blessing the food I prepared and ate, while reminding me of my pilgrimages in the British Isles.
In earlier times in England, the last sheaf of wheat was cut down with special pomp and ceremony and carried into the house where it was displayed throughout the winter, being returned to the soil when the fields were ploughed in spring. Sometimes the spirit of the grain was invited to inhabit weavings made of wheat stalks interlaced in intricate patterns. These were often called corn dollies, corn being a word for grain and dolly describing the shape.
To make your own wheat weavings, you must first obtain wheat, either from a craft supply store or a field (I have friends who grow a small patch in their garden for harvesting at Lammas and using in wheat-weaving and bread-baking). The excursion to get the wheat could become a part of your holiday rituals. I will never forget my first sight of wheat fields, driving one Fourth of July weekend with my daughter through the wheat country of eastern Washington. For miles and miles as far as the eye could see, for hours we drove among the silent rolling hills of golden wheat.
Maggie Oster in Gifts and Crafts from Your Garden says that wheat for wheat-weaving should be harvested about two weeks before the regular harvest when it is in the “dough stage.” Test it by pinching one of the grains with your thumbnail. If it releases a milky say, it is too green. If it is hard, it is too ripe. It should puncture easily but no sap should appear. Cut the wheat about four or six inches above the soil and bundle in sheaves about four to six inches in diameter. Keeping all the heads of wheat in one direction, bind near the bottom of the stalk and either hang them up or stack them for two weeks.
Wheat weavings were often hung on walls, not just as decorations but as protection, like the charms made in the Scottish Highlands on Lammas by tying red strings around crossed rowan-twigs and hanging them over doors. In Wales, wheat weaving has become a traditional art form, divorced from harvest customs. Everywhere I went in Wales, I saw beautiful and elaborate wheat weavings for sale. You may be able to find someone in your area who can teach you this traditional art. Like many women’s arts, it’s hard to describe on paper–it cries out for one-to-one instruction and a kinesthetic experience.
Prepare the wheat by cutting off and discarding the second-joint straw and removing the leaf-sheaf. Soak them in warm water for at least 30 minutes. Then drain and wrap in a damp towel so they will stay moist.
Witch’s Mark or Cat’s Paw
The first set of instructions come from Helen Farias’ unpublished book, The Harvest Mysteries. This creates a long flat braid.
Tie three straws together, just below the heads with stout thread (Helen suggests buttonhole twist). Fan them out into north, east and west positions with the heads to the south. Fold the east (right) straw under the north (top) straw just before you fold the north straw over the east straw–in other words, they trade places. Then fold the west (left) straw under the north straw, just before folding the north straw over the west straw–again they trade places. Repeat.
As you work, you may wish to stretch the braid slightly. With your left thumb and forefinger (if you are right-handed) firmly hold the weaving, and move your grip up the weaving as it grows. Stop a few inches from the end and tie off.
Four Straw Plait or North, South, East, West Plait
This creates a plait with a bit more dimension. Tie four straws together under the heads. Hold the heads down (towards the floor) with your left thumb and forefinger, keeping your palm upward. Fan the four straws out in the four directions.
With your right hand (if you’re right-handed), fold the south straw to the north and the north to the south. Put your thumb across the fold. Fold the east straw to the west and the west straw to the east. Secure with your thumb. Repeat, moving your grip slowly upwards as the weaving grows, stretching it when necessary, holding it securely with your thumb. Stop a few inches from the end and tie off.
Shaping the Weaving
These braids can now be twisted into various shapes.
The simplest is a simple loop. Tie the end to the to the neck of the heads and either fan the straw ends out, snipping them at an angle, or hide them behind the heads.
Or loop the braid twice and overlap the loop, creating a vesica pisces or almond shape in the center.
Or make three concentric loops for a miniature “dolly” (with the loops as the head, the sheaves as the skirted body).
Secure the ends again, straighten the weaving and pat it until it is even and pleasing. Mist it once or twice, if it’s dried out, and place under a brick, heavy book (protected with plastic) or some other flat weight. When it has dried, decorate as you like. The traditional decoration is a red ribbon.
Mordiford Wheat Weaving
If you are now ready for a more complicated wheat weaving, try this heart-shaped “corn dolly” associated with the Mordiford district in England. I found directions for it and a picture at www.wheatweaving.com.
Campanelli, Pauline, Ancient Ways, Llewellyn 1991
Farias, Helen, The Harvest Mysteries, 1990, unpublished [copy in my collection]
Oster, Maggie, Gifts and Crafts from the Garden, Rodale 1988
At this web site, you can take a virtual tour of woven straw art. It’s just like walking through a museum. Great photos and informative captions. I came away with a new appreciation of the marvelous capabilities of woven grain and the spiritual dimensions of this art.
This association sponsors a web site that features photos of wheat weavings created by members and information on where to buy grains, find classes and buy books on the topic.