Straw Plaiting in 19th Century Orkney

Fiona Grahame

In the first half of the 19th Century an important export from Orkney was supplying the UK fashion industry with an item of ladies head wear: the straw bonnet.

At the beginning, the whole process took place in Orkney from the harvesting of the straw, plaiting it into lengths, sewing these together into a bonnet and finally shipping them south to the big ports like Liverpool.

Over the course of its 50+ years of manufacture this sector employed thousands of women, some in ‘workshops’ and others in their own homes.

There were islands of Orkney where there was either no, or very little, involvement in the industry: for instance North Ronaldsay where there are no records of strawplaiting taking place. This is not surprising considering the difficulties of transport in the supply chain.

The Orkney straw from black oats, was excellent for the production of fine quality flexible material, but soon demand from the industry exceeded what the islands could produce and so straw had to be imported.

The statistical accounts for 1842 record that in Sandwick those employed at plaiting the straw could earn 6d a day. Although the majority of this work was done by young, single women, the age range spanned across the generations: from age 5 to 75. Many of these women worked all their lives in female only households, with men either at sea, working away from home, in the services, or who had died leaving widows with very little income. For those women on such low finances, marriage prospects were poor and they were to remain unmarried.

As the century entered its second half, Orkney struggled to compete with cheaper products made nearer the mass markets. Wages were lowered and when the industry collapsed the income which hundreds of poorer women had relied upon in Orkney went with it. When there was no longer an income to be made from plaiting, they got by, earning money from knitting – mostly stockings. Women like Kirkwall’s Jane Ferrier who was still earning from working in knitting when in her 70s.

There is very little evidence today of the highly skilled work these women did. One example of which is a piece that was made for display and is now in the Stromness Museum.

From those who plaited the straw the work was passed onto the bonnet makers. The bonnet makers were also young and single although many of them were later married. They often married into similar skilled trades like shoemakers and tailors. When the industry collapsed many of these women became seamstresses and dressmakers. Jane Wallace, of Kirkwall, remained single, living with her sisters . They earned their income as dressmakers and milliners. Straw bonnet manufacturing may have vanished in Orkney but the skills of the seamstress and hat maker were still needed.

At the top of the pyramid of production were the manufacturers: the agents who imported the straw and exported the finished product. These were almost exclusively male and resided in the main towns of Kirkwall and Stromness. Men like William Heddle (Stromness ) and George McBeath (Kirkwall) made great profits when the industry was at its height. If they were savvy they moved those profits into other lines of business before the boom went bust.

In 1833 the income being generated in Orkney from its various interests and recorded by Rev Charles Clouston, Minister of Sandwick, was as follows:

  • Herring: £170,000
  • Whaling : £7,500
  • Cod: £7,280
  • Straw manufacture: £4,800
  • Horses, Cows, Oxen: £4,290 (+ £1,104)
  • Bere: £3,883
  • Butter: £2,700
  • Eggs: £2,500
  • Kelp: £2,250
  • Malt: £1,604
  • Lobsters: £1,800
  • Hudson’s Bay: £1,500 (wages)
  • White Oats: £909
  • Rabbit Skins: £600
  • Feathers: £250
  • Sheep, Swine: £80
  • Peas: £35 2/-
  • Oatmeal: £28

What was important about the straw manufacturing industry was it gave women paid employment – not pay in kind but in cash.

Industrialisation of the straw bonnet industry was to take its toll on the manufacture of the product in Orkney. Cheap imports of straw came in from China. Long strands which could be used on machines. The industry had become mechanised. It affected not only Orkney, where the industry collapsed, but many other places where the bonnets had been made.

The industry became centralised in Luton where the hats continued to be made in factories.

This is a short taster of the current research I am undertaking into this fascinating trade in Orkney and the untold history of Orcadian Women.

2 replies »

  1. This reminds me of an old Yorkshire rhyme….

    ‘Ast tha’ sin owr Mary’s bonnet?
    It’s a stunner an’ no mistak’
    There’s a yeller ribbon on it
    And a feather slung down’t back.

    Owr Mary went to church one Sunday morn
    Fowk did ‘nowt but gawp an’ stare.
    When Parson finished his sermon, he stood up and he says
    “This ‘ouse is an ‘ouse o’ prayer – not a fluw’r garden.”

    Owr Mary stood up, fit to swaller‘t church an’ all fowks in it
    “Thy head’s bald” she said
    “Now in it, ‘nowt on it – would’st tha’ like a feather outa my new bonnet?”

    Maybe Mary’s bonnet was made in Orkney?

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