Archive for the ‘New England’ Category

“braiding straw Bonnets”

Elizabeth “Betsy” Metcalf was born in Providence, Rhode Island. Her father was by trade a tanner and currier. When she was 24, Betsy wrote a retrospective diary on her education and early experiences, which included, she claimed, a method for braiding straw bonnets.

When about 12, I engaged in a new employment which was braiding straw Bonnets … I began to braid in 1798. Then I was not well enough to attend school. … I undertook the new employment with much anxiety but. … I felt much pleased when I first made a bonnet. I then learned to braid all kinds of trimming by seeing the English Bonnets but it was rather difficult to find out the number of straws, but Perseverance and industry will accomplish anything. My sister then learned and we had considerable of a manufactory. … for 2 or 3 years it was very profitable business. I could frequently make 1 dollar a day. … It is very injurious to the health, especially to work very steady. We used to do a great deal of business and was always hurried making bonnets. …

Betsy used split-oak straw and a seven-strand braid which she fashioned into bonnets similar to imported styles she had seen in shop windows. Her method of braiding was highly popularized. She did not, however, get it patented because “she did not want her name to go to Congress records.” In 1809, Mary Dixon Kies, a native of Killingly, Connecticut, became the first woman to receive a patent—for a new way of weaving straw with silk or thread for hatmaking. Making straw hats became such a cottage industry, that the term “straw towns” was coined.

For those curious about the process: lengths of water-soaked straw (to make it more pliable) were plaited into braids. These were then sewn together with an invisible stitch while blocked on a wooden mold to form the crown.

This illustration purports to be an example of Metcalf’s work. Betsy later pondered in her diary whether bonnet weaving had been a beneficial development.

The consequences I fear have been more of an injury than otherwise to the New England states, for girls forsook all other employments such as spinning, weaving and the care of a family, and because they could get more by it continued to persevere, by which means they have neglected a necessary part of a females employment … Gentlemen say that it is almost impossible to get a girl to do housework in the country, they are so engaged in braiding straw.

The first excerpt is from In the Words of Women Chapter 8, pages 232-33. Other information is from “A Guide to Women’s Diaries” in the Manuscript Collection of the Rhode Island Historical Society Library. Original straw hats created by Mary Dixon Kies can be seen on display at the Bugbee Memorial Library in Killingly, Connecticut, as well as at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut.The Rhode Island Society for the Encouragement of Domestic Industry possesses a facimile of a Betsy Metcalf straw bonnet.

posted June 21st, 2012 by Janet, comments (2), CATEGORIES: Employment,Fashion,New England

previous page

   Copyright © 2024 In the Words of Women.