Introduction: Straw hats of different shapes got my interest a while ago, and I made some research around them. They seem to appear in art from around the 13th century onwards while changing design over the centuries.
My thoughts are that they are mainly seen in rural landscapes and working conditions; farmers and labourers working outside. They also appear on travellers, commoners being outdoors, harvest time etc. Some examples exist of straw hats on higher social status persons (but the artwork might be allegorical or symbolic rather than contemporary portraits).
Based on what I´ve seen in the artwork, I believe the straw hat to have been in use in a similar fashion as today; as an outdoors option for sunny weather, mainly to act as a sun barrier. They are often depicted in manuscripts like The labours of the months (Medieval calendars) during field labour in June, July and August on both men and women. Decorations are scarce, with the occasional headband in black or some other neutral colour the only decor visible.
Fashionable shapes? In art, the straw hat appears in many different forms. Some shapes seem to have been used for longer amounts of time (like the round one with a brim or the slightly unshaped hill form) while the conical shape of the 13th and early 14th century (seen in the Maciejowski bible) seems to be out of fashion later.
During the second half of the 15th century and onwards you can spot a greater diversity in hat shapes and design, possibly mimicking the fashion for headwear during this period. The late 15th century is, after all, a rather crazy fashion period with lots of options in sizes, shapes, design and silhouettes! During the 16th century, heads with a flat top and flatter shaped hats become more common in the artwork I have looked through.
The artwork in this blog post is mainly collected from today’s Germany, England and Italy, but this excellent webpage has a collection of more hats in period artwork if you are interested.
Materials: Based only on the artwork, it is impossible to determine which kind of straws were used to make hats, and my guess is that it also depended upon local traditions and what material was readily available to the artisans. It is not impossible to weave or braid straw yourself even if it takes practice to make it look good, and since the material is available for free in most areas I think it likely that these hats were commonly made in the local community rather than imported. Most hats are also seen on workers in the field (though the occasional more fashionable straw hat appears in city settings), supporting the theory on local manufacturing.
To continue on the line of guessing, both straw from agriculture, grass straw and wetland reed may be used to weave straw hats. If you want to find yourself a nice historical hat, look for something grown where your persona/character would live, and avoid exotic plants like palm leaves.
Diffferent kinds of straw available today:
Wheat straw is soft, shiny (and if you ask my horse, super cosy come winter) and very possible material for hats, at least in those parts of Europe cultivating wheat regularly. Oat straw I have no handcrafting experience with, but the horse likes it in his bed, and there’s always some oats left to munch on. Barley was a common grain in Sweden during the Middle ages, and is a rather stiff and durable straw, like rye.
Rye straw is a traditionally used material in Sweden for making straw crafts because of it’s length and durability, and rye is a hardy crop. For handcrafting material today, rye is being grown for its straw and harvested before giving grain, whereas the medieval straw was probably taken during the grain harvest.
One important difference between the straw today versus the medieval straw is the mechanical machines munching up straw during harvest, making it usable mainly for animal bedding or farming. Before machines took over, the harvest was done by hand and a scythe takes off the straw at the ground without crushing it. After the grain was collected, you would have great amounts of material. Very handy!
How were straw hats made? I believe contemporary artwork show different methods in use for making straw hats. There seems to be evidence for different kinds of weaving techniques and patterns (when you braid the straw together until you have formed a whole hat) as well as sewn hats with braided straw tape as a base (when you first make a tape and then sew it into a hat shape). The find looks to be made from woven or braided tapes, layered on top of each other.
I have only found one extant find of a straw hat from today’s Germany, rather beaten up but at least you can see what it is. Do you know of any more finds? I would love to check them out!
Conclusions if you want to sport a straw hat yourself:
Go for a hat made with natural straw, such as those mentioned above. Handwoven in one piece, or made out of braided tapes sewn together depending on what you can find (avoid the obviously machine-stitched ones). Pick a shape that fits in with the period you would like to reenact, and don’t decorate it overmuch. Use your hat outdoors as a nice shade from the sun, but replace it with a smarter looking hat or veil/hairdo during winter and indoor festivities.
Some practical tips from this very experienced hat-wearer:
Straw hats during summer will shade you from the sun and help you avoid sunburn and heatstroke. If it is really hot, use a cap, coif or linen wrap drenched in cold water under the hat. A ribbon may be pulled through your hat at the base to hold it in place on your head, or you could use pins to secure it to your linen layer underneath. If your hats get a bit crooked or bent, spray it with some warm water and set it to dry in the shape you want.
Feel the need for a good straw hat? I am currently making and selling different models; check out my FBpage to look at the different hats and place an order! This last bit is totally advertising my own business. Yep. Send me your money.