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Straw plaiting is a method of manufacturing textiles by braiding straw and the industry that surrounds the craft of producing these straw manufactures. Straw is plaited to produce products including straw hats and ornaments, and the process is undertaken in a number of locations worldwide.
To plait comes from late 14c., "to fold, gather in pleats," also "to braid or weave," from Old French pleir "to fold," variant of ploier, ployer "to fold, bend," from Latin plicare "to fold"
Straw can be plaited for a number of purposes, including: the thatching of roofs, to create a paper-making material, for ornamenting small surfaces as a "straw-mosaic", for plaiting into door and table mats, mattresses and for weaving and plaiting into light baskets and to create artificial flowers. Straw is also plaited to produce bonnets and hats.
The plaiting of straw in the counties of Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Berkshire and Hertfordshire formerly gave employment to many thousands of women and young children; but this had largely ended by the beginning of the 20th century: the number of English plaiters, all told, was not more than a few hundreds in 1907, as compared with 30,000 in 1871.
The districts around Luton in Bedfordshire and the neighbouring counties were, since the beginning of the 17th century, 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 color and due to 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 color 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 straws were put through a small mangle to flatten them. They were then braided to produce a woven strip which was sold on to the makers of hats, baskets and other wares.
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