The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

Straw craft

Furniture

Years ago almost every item of furniture had to be home made. A valuable commodity would be driftwood, or perhaps a cargo of wood lost off a shipwreck.

Nothing was wasted and the people were self-sufficient and resourceful. Stone was readily available as was straw and this was used in many different ways.

Today the traditional Orkney Chair is sold worldwide and there are several chair makers.

Containers

One of the most basic things we need is something to carry goods in. Remains of baskets have been found in Bronze Age sites in Orkney and it is very likely they were used long before this, but examples have not survived. Baskets were made from willow, bent grass, plant fibres, heather and any other suitable robust material.

Baskets made of straw or heather were common in Orkney. The materials were easy to come by and all kinds of baskets could be made. There were two kinds of baskets, the cubbies and the caisies.

Straw, the raw material

Cubbies

Cubbies were tightly-woven baskets that could be made to almost any size and had a solid base and sides. There were as many different uses for a cubbie as there were ways of making them. Baskets could be fashioned to suit its purpose and each person making them would have their own way of doing things.

Cubbies could also be used as a general purpose basket or, if big enough, were used as a temporary bed for a baby. Turned upside down they were also used as stools for the younger members of the family.

In the home, cubbies were used for all kinds of things.

Spoon cubbies were bottle shaped with an opening at the front. These hung up on the wall and held the family’s horn or wooden spoons.

Bait cubbies held fishing bait, while hen cubbies were used by the hens to lay their eggs in.

Cubbies used for holding salt were very tightly woven. These were kept near the mantelpiece to keep the salt dry – it was a precious commodity. They were mostly used indoors and would have been well taken care of.

Some, of course, were for use outdoors. Cubbies were made to fit over the working horse or cow. These were worn as a muzzle to prevent the animals from snacking on the crops as they worked.

There was also the sowing cubbie, used to hold seed. It had a carrying band attached to the rim and was worn across the shoulders. This left the hands free to scatter the seed in the springtime.

The winnowing cubbie was used in the barn. Grain was placed in the cubbie and then, standing between two doors in the barn, the crofter would shake the basket. The draft from the doors would separate the grain from the chaff .

Today straw baskets are still made locally, but this time it is for the modern market. There is something very homely about these baskets. People use them to hold their knitting or keep them by the fire where they hold logs or peats. Once a necessity, they are now a fashionable item to have in the home.

Caisies

Caisies were a different shape and had a more open weave to them. The base was not solid and they were generally used for outdoor work.

They carried dirtier goods such as peats, turnips, fish and dung and would have been kept in the barn. They could be made of straw, but heather and dock roots could also be used.

The end result was a sturdy basket, but it was not as ‘tight’ as the cubbie.

Heather caisie with straw ones behind

Simmans

Simmans were ropes made of straw and they were used for many different purposes. It was not too difficult to make simmans, and the men were employed in this during the long winter evenings and on days when the weather was not favourable for being outdoors.

A great quantity of simmans was needed as they had many different uses. These ropes were used for tying down stacks, tethering animals, thatching roofs and even for collecting wild bird eggs.

Simmans were made by taking a handful of straw and bending it in the middle, making a loop. The two ends were then twisted and more straw was added as you went along.

Every man had a different style, but the finished article was same.

When a good length was completed it was laid out flat and stretched to take out any ‘kink’. It was then wound into a clew (ball).

A man rested his chest on the top of the clew and once his fingers touched the ground on either side, the clew was complete.

It was wound in such a way that the rope was pulled from the centre. They were kept in the barn until needed.

A lovely example of a simmans roof © Orkney Library & Archive

Clothing

Straw hats and bonnets

During the 18th Century straw hats were very much in vogue. At first straw was brought into Britain from Tuscany, where straw was of a better quality.

However, when the Napoleonic War broke out, the import of Italian goods was severely disrupted and this opened up the door for Britain. Straw plaiting became a cottage industry for places which had a good supply of straw.

Orkney girls were already used to working with straw and soon the trade flourished. The industry employed hundreds of girls – 30 to 40 would gather in a workshop and enjoy company and conversation while they worked.

But where there are young women there are usually young men. Fishermen and sailors would try to distract the young women from their work and their reputation became a concern. Workshops were disbanded and the girls then worked from home. 

Dexterous fingers could make very fine straw plait, which was then fashioned into hats, and this skill allowed women to earn ready money for the first time. By the middle of the 19th century cheaper imports saw the decline in the industry.

A very finely made straw hat, on display at Orkney Musuem, Kirkwall

Rivlins

A much more casual garment was men’s strae-beuts or rivlins.

A length of simmans was placed under the instep and over the boot. It was then wound around the leg and tucked in when the required height was reached.

The friction caused when walking kept the wearer warm, although perhaps the itchiness it caused was a distraction from the cold! Once attired in this way, the man of the house was ready to go out.

So popular was this fashion that 40 men were rebuked by the minister in Sandwick for turning up to church one snowy winter’s day wearing them.

Bedding – human and animal

Straw was used as bedding for the animals but also for humans.

At Kirbuster Farm Museum there is a double mattress made from straw. Mattresses could also be made from chaff, which was gathered up and placed in a cotton sleeve. When the mattress got lumpy, the end was opened up and the chaff thrown out, with some fresh chaff inserted.

Straw mattress, Kirbuster Farm Museum, Birsay

Straw-backed chair

One of the most valuable pieces of furniture was the head of the house’s chair. In the early days chairs were simply made of any wood that could be found. Wood was such a scarce commodity that, in order to save on it, the backs of the chairs were made using straw.

Often, one man would make the frame while another would specialise in making the straw back. By working together chairs were created.

The man of the house would have a hooded chair – this would keep the draught off him. Often there would be a drawer in the front to hold his precious belongings such as his whisky and maybe his pipe.

Some chairs had a drawer in each side. This was a great invention. Should you have an unexpected visit from the minister you could pull out the drawer which held the family Bible – the other one was opened when friends arrived!

Orkney chairs. These are on display at the Orkney Museum, Kirkwall

The back of the chair for the woman of the house would come up to her shoulders. The arms would be kept low so she could move freely to do her knitting or sewing or simply to nurse her children. She may be afforded the luxury of having rocking feet on her chair.