Belarus is known for its straw plaiting. The Heart 2 Heart festival offers an opportunity to learn more about folk art masterpieces and, most importantly, to acquire some basic practical straw-plaiting skills.
Alla Sidorova spent several years teaching the rare folk craft to children and adults throughout Europe.
A straw doll made with one’s own hands will be a great reward for the effort.
Straw was easily accessible for Belarusian peasants in their daily lives. That was why it played an important role: people would cover their roofs with it; straw was used as a bedding and food for cattle; it was used for making hats, toys, boxes, adornments. People slept on it and even ate it, mixed into bread, during crop failures.
The time-honoured craft has become a part of daily life for Belarusians many centuries ago. People would mostly use rye straw for plaiting due to its length and durability.
You can use wheat straw for plaiting, too; however, it is shorter, coarser and thicker than rye straw. Oat straw is used for plaiting small details and decorating bigger items, too. It has an elegant yellowish colour but isn’t long enough.
Hand-picked straw makes the best raw material for plaiting. It has to be harvested at different growth stages, which will produce various shades of straw, from green to bright yellow. First, the straw is dried up, peeled, and soaked in hot water. As a result, it becomes soft and elastic. Traditionally, folk artists would use straw coloured with natural pigments, e.g., by boiling it in water with onion peels to make the straw more yellow or by boiling it with alder catkins or oak bark to add a brownish hue.
There are four basic types of straw plaiting: spiral, straight, flat, and three-dimensional. Spiral plaiting was the most widespread. It was used for making boxes and cases for storing food supplies, clothes, grain, and flour, as well as beehives and furniture. Straight and flat types of plaiting were used to make straw hats, big and small baskets, and small boxes. Three-dimensional plaiting was mainly used for decorative purposes.
By the way, this type of plaiting reached its peak in the late 18th – early 19th century. It was even used to make church decorations. At that time, Belarusian artists created unique Royal Doors made of straw, three of which have survived up to our day. Two straw Royal Doors are preserved in the Museum of Belarusian Folk Art (v. Raŭbičy near Minsk), and the third extant Royal Door is in Museum of History and Archaeology in Hrodna. Made of simple and affordable material, straw Royal Doors in rural churches looked almost as good as gilded ones. Researchers believe that there used to be entire iconostases made of straw.
Incrustation with straw was also widespread. The earliest items encrusted with straw date back to the 18th century. Among them were boxes, snuffboxes, and Easter eggs. Artists usually use rye straw for this purpose. It is cut into squares, diamonds, or stripes, and then glued onto the surface. The adorned surface is later covered with varnish to increase contrast between the straw pattern and the dark background.
Hanging straw decorations known as “spiders” were highly popular. It is worth noting that star-shaped straw spiders were typical only of Lithuania and Belarus. A spider and his web symbolised the Creator and the Universe that He created.
Hanging decorative spiders were made of the best rye straw. The spiders were mostly made in the shape of a pyramid. Ball-shaped spiders symbolised the sun and were lavishly decorated with straw, paper, seeds, and feathers. The spiders were put in the centre of a room, above the table, or near the home iconostasis. A spider would slowly rotate in hot air and throw shadows. The spread of Christianity added new shapes of spiders, e.g., inspired by Christian crosses.