What is straw?
There are many different vegetable fibres commonly used to make hats. While the term straw probably first came from the use of literal straw (the stalk of grass crops like wheat and rice), the term straw in millinery encompasses all vegetable fibres from sisal to paper, and sometimes even synthetic fibres. In this article, we will talk about some typical straw used in hat making.
Abaca (Musa textilis) is a type of banana plant grown for fibre. Though it is cultivated in many parts of the world, the Phillippines produce most of the abaca used in millinery and explains the alternate name, Manila hemp. Abaca fibre is three times stronger than cotton or silk and is exceptionally long-lasting. Abaca is used to make many fabrics we use in millinery like sinamay, silk abaca, Paris cloth, and tinalak (t’nalak) as well as hemp braid. It has a fantastic lustre which is responsible for the shine in these fabrics. Many mistake the gloss of silk abaca to be from the silk when it’s, in fact, the abaca. The fibre takes dye very well, and thus fabrics made from abaca come in a wide range of colours.
Farmers generally start harvesting a plant before it is two years old and then at quarterly intervals after that. There is a month or more where good fibre production is possible between the leaf emerging and the plant flowering. First, the leaves are cut from the stalks (topped) to minimise damage to the surrounding plants using large knives mounted on poles. Then stalks are ‘tumbled’ by cutting them off near the base with a bolo (knife).
Fibre is extracted from the stems by hand in a process known as tuxying. Workers separate and strip away the different layers of the stalk discarding some and keeping the fibre rich portions (tuxies). Fibre is graded by colour at this stage with the palest being from the inner layer. Tuxies then go thorough a stripping process which removes the soft fleshy and watery parts of the stalk. Yields of fibre are only 1.5-2% of the stalk. Traditionally stripping was done by hand with great effort by drawing tuxies between a fixed, weighted knife and block. Now, many larger processors use spindle strippers; machines that take some of the labour and a lot of time from the process. The fibre is then dried in the sun or open sheds. Before is baled in grades set out bt the government.
From fibre to fabric
Before weaving fabric, manufacturers must comb it to separate the strands from each other. They then have to be individually knotted together to form a continuous thread and wound onto spools or hanks. Weavers can then use the fibre to weave fabrics, make braid or rope etc. Much of the abaca fabrics we use are still woven, by hand, on traditional looms. Here abaca is often combined with other fibres to produce products like Paris cloth, or fabric like sinamay use only abaca.