I have lived on the edge of Hampstead Heath for more than 25 years and am ashamed to say paid it scant regard for the majority of that time, enjoying nothing more than a cream tea at Kenwood House on Sunday afternoon and kite flying adventures with my children when they were young. It is only now, after spending the majority of the last year exploring my immediate surroundings, that have I come to appreciate its wonders. This discovery initiated the ideas behind this issue, where we look again at that which we once considered commonplace.
Straw is the most mundane and abundant waste material. Yet we discover that it is extraordinary in the diversity of its practical applications: everything from architecture, clothing, intricate Swedish crowns, delicate embroidery and folklore icons. This material is not always benign, playing a part in riots and rituals worldwide. My research was undertaken with the assistance of Ollie Douglas, the curator of the Museum of English Rural Life, (well worth a pilgrimage if you are ever in Berkshire) to whom I am extremely grateful for the knowledge he so generously shared.
I have discovered both fresh approaches and reverence for ancient crafts of thatching, basket making and millinery. As well as pondering the research and development needed to create compostable fibre from dissolvable pulp, we look afresh at woven oak swill baskets and the aromatic rush matting used to cover the floor of traditional English interiors. If you are lucky enough to enjoy a walk in the countryside this spring, consider the humble straw and wear a straw hat to shield you from the sun.
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