One for the rook, one for the crow

One of the things I have started to realise about last year’s array of experiments is how much I have struggled to really understand the materials. Not from a practical point of view (I have been able to functionally use them), but more in finding a medium which speaks of what I think it does. In my quilting work, you used cotton because that’s what you do. Even in art quilting, materials are nearly always used because of their aesthetics or textile qualities and nothing more. Few ask why we use fabric in the first place. If you consider the supply chain, woven cotton cloth is a long way down from it’s pure raw materials. Now this isn’t an issue in itself – but if you begin your making with cotton, you inherit the associations that come with it: the history of production, female craft traditions and so on.

For my current research project, this discussion so many layers down the production process is a distraction from my concept. I think I saw this even back in the Spring term, when I started the experiments with making silk paper and spinning maps (See this post: Making my own Fabric), even though the approach was still a bit random as to what materials I picked to use. I knew I wanted my own fabric / my own fibres.

So where does that bring me to now?  Well, I am looking at materials which “are having the right conversation” with my project context. I’ve already experimented with steel wires (which although processed, they are still essentially a raw material), old maps – which come with a complex but relevant context. I like both of these, but since there is a little unit 1 time left to experiment, I thought I would look a little beyond them…after all, the symbology using old maps to represent place is a little obvious. A first order solution as you might say!

This brings me back to a very interesting place – natural fibres again. My proposal and essay (which is coming along nicely) have been looking at the concepts of locality and universality, and keeps coming back to the idea of local materials and what that means. So I have come back to an old idea using a rather interesting natural fibre: corn

A brief diversion…………………………………………………………….

Brief history of the corn dolly

The most famous use of the craft of corn weaving is undoubtedly the corn dolly. When early man exchanged the nomadic life as a hunter-gatherer for a settled, farming community based existence, they believed that that the success of labour on the land was highly dependent on various deities who would oversee the cycles and fruitfulness of the crops. To this end, various rituals would be held to propitiate his gods: this is true of civilisations all over the world, particularly where cereal crops are concerned. Wheat is one of the first cereals known to have been domesticated, and archaeological records suggest that this first occurred in the regions known as the Fertile Crescent in the Near East, and the Nile Delta.

So even into comparatively modern times, wherever cereal crops are grown, the underlying legend of a Corn Spirit or Goddess of the harvest still remained: it was thought that the Corn Spirit retreated before the oncoming reapers at harvest time, taking refuge in the last of the standing corn. The last sheaf would be cut and made into a receptacle in which the Spirit could rest during the winter. This was the corn dolly (or cailleach or corn maiden depending on where you live!). In the spring, the corn dolly, along with the corn spirit contained within it, would be returned to the fields and ploughed back into the soil with the new planting. By giving the Corn Spirit a home during the dark winter months, it was hoped to ensure that the forthcoming crop would be a bounteous one and bring blessings and prosperity to the local community.

Most of the evidence for this ritual activity comes from anthropologists, including the infamous James George Frazer who wrote the well known work The Golden Bough. A lot of scholars note the gloss which Frazer used in romanticising England’s pagan history. However true the long history of the harvest fertility rituals, by the time we reached the 19th / 20th century, a corn dolly was generally said to be ‘for luck’. Any deeper significance was long forgotten. Irrespective of this is it is ancient worldwide tradition. Due to the fact the dolly was generally only kept for the winer, you generally don’t see corn dollies in museums and the like. There are some hanging in churches decades old – apparently Martinho Church has a corn dolly from 1897 hanging there still.

With the changes in harvesting methods as a result of the Industrial Revolution, the craft was almost completely lost in Europe by the mid-1900s. From about the 1960s, the craft saw a revival, although mostly for tourist souvenirs.


For weaving you need to use a hollow stemmed straw, which you only get from a specific variety of corn. I managed to find a local craftswoman who offers this beautiful stuff: Maris Widgeon wheat, a winter variety planted last October, and harvested this summer.

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I rather like the ritual associations (obviously) but don’t want to make that the focus of using it. I want to use this as an example of a material which sits ambiguously in the local / universal box. Most cultures on earth have some grain harvest tradition, making this type of material practically universal in its reach and importance to society. However, the growing and use of the grain is the epitome of locality – grown, harvested, ground and baked into bread – surely one of the most fundamental acts that we had in this country?

For the moment, I’m playing to see what the material can do – looking at different basket forms and weaving techniques to see what has potential. These were my first experiments:

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