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A Touch of Wheat

By Sarah Popelka

Windmills made from wheatKansas is the "wheat state" and visitors often purchase products made from Kansas wheat including flour, pancake mix or Butter Braids. But most don't consider taking the raw product home as a souvenir. However, members of the National Association of Wheat Weavers (NAWW) encourage visitors and residents to do just that.

Wheat weaving is any work done with straw in an artistic manner. Wheat weaving encompasses many diverse categories, and the techniques used are as varied as the products produced.

Angel constructed from stalks of wheatSince grains were cultivated for food, straw has been used to fashion useful items and beautiful decorations. Before modern-style cultivation, wild grasses and grains were used for weaving. The art has been crafted for over 8,000 years.

Using ancient methods, today's wheat weavers create harvest decorations, country accessories, traditional good luck tokens and contemporary works of straw art. The NAWW was organized in 1987 with the purpose to preserve the heritage and history of the craft. It has since grown and accepts memberships from Canada, Great Britain and Australia, in addition to the United States.

Close up of wheat angel faceThe NAWW is divided into three regions: Central, East and West. Each year a national convention is hosted by a region where new skills are shared. Members attend classes ranging from beginner to advanced levels. Many weavers involve their families in the convention. Tours of the city's attractions are planned for visitors not interested in the education courses.

"You get to know families, not just weavers. We share many family traditions as well," Diane Gardner, Formoso, Kansas, NAWW member, says.
The Plait Directory is published to support the NAWW. It is the official handbook containing the plaits, or techniques, used to create corn dollies, or straw artwork. Weavers design and submit patterns to the Project Committee. The committee then selects which designs will be taught at convention and added to the directory.

Women in bonnets made from wheatAlthough beginner classes are instructed at convention, it is best to learn hands-on from a fellow weaver, Gardner, said.

"No special tools are needed. All you need is the skill and water," Garnder says. "However, knowledge is a necessity."

American Eagle made of wheatThe wheat must be shocked at the perfect time with just a little green color in it. Next, it is cleaned and soaked in water.

"By the time I'm ready to weave or work the wheat, I've already got up to four hours in a piece," Gardner says.

Cross of wheat
The time-honored process is passed on through the generations. Gardner has taught her daughter-in-law the craft and plans to instruct her granddaughters as well.

"I love to do it, but finding the time is difficult," Kelly Gardner, Belleville, Kansas says.

Along with the techniques, the folklore is also passed on. Certain pieces are traditionally placed by the door used most in the home to keep evil spirits from entering. Some believe the spirit of the wheat can protect the spirit of life, Gardner says.

Wheat weavers offer memories of an ancient craft.
"It is a lot of hard work by some people who love the art that keeps us all going," Gardner says.

 

 

 

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Last Updated April 6, 2009
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