Plaiting and straw hat making were, quite literally, cottage industries at the beginning of the 19th century. Plaiting, in particular, was a good way of supplementing an agricultural wage and was done in many homes in the area, usually by women and children. Plaiting tended to be confined to the rural areas while the better paid sewing was concentrated in the towns.
Before the invention of a straw-splitter in the early 1800s much of the plaiting was done with whole straws, although this made quite a coarse plait. A finer plait could be made by splitting the straw with a knife. In Italy, the plaiters used fine straw and grasses to made a plait which was superior to that made in England. The Italians exported both plaits and straw hoods which could then be shaped into finished hats. While these were known as Leghorns, which suggested that they were made in Leghorn (Livorno) in Tuscany, they were actually made in the villages around Florence (Firenze).
Women plaiting 19th century
T. W. Bagshaw © Luton Libraries
Two enterprising brothers, Edmund and Thomas Waller, played a big part in developing the industry in Luton. Edmund was a hat manufacturer but he also bought hats from the cottagers for finishing and selling in London, while Thomas became a plait dealer.
The Napoleonic wars, beginning in 1793, had a big impact on the hat industry. The cutting off of supplies from Italy proved to be an incentive to improve the quality and quantity of local plait. French prisoners at the prisoner of war camp at Yaxley, near Peterborough, made and sold plait, despite the disapproval of the authorities. Thomas Waller made twice-weekly visits to the camp to buy the plait. What was really wanted, though, was local plait of the same quality as the finer Italian plait. The invention of a straw-splitter in the early 1800s solved this problem and meant that much finer plait could now be produced locally.
I Nicholls' stall in Luton plait halls c.1900
F.Thurston © Luton Libraries
Plaiting schools were set up around 1800 in Luton and other towns and villages in the south Midlands in order to help to meet the growing demand for plait. Children were meant to receive a basic education as well as produce a given amount of plait daily. The quality of the education received in these schools varied greatly. Some of the teachers were good but others were illiterate. Some were even said to be unable to plait! Plaiting schools died out after the Education Act of 1870 and with the decline of local plaiting.
An illustration showing the interior of Luton's plait hall published in the
Illustrated London News on 7 December 1878
© Luton Libraries
Weekly Plait markets were held at Luton, Dunstable and Hitchin and other nearby towns. Plaiters could sell their plait to travelling dealers or they could go to one of the markets themselves where they would get a better price, although few were actually able to do this.
The plait market in George Street, Luton, looking toward the Town Hall, c.1869
© Luton Libraries
As the industry expanded so the demand for plait increased. From 1842 reduced import tariffs made imported plait, initially from Italy and Switzerland, more competitive. Two plait halls opened in Luton in 1869 to house the plait market, which had previously been in George Street. They became redundant soon afterwards as local plaiting declined. The plait halls had opened at around the same time that cheap imports were coming in, first from China and then from Japan. Ironically, these imports had caused the decline of the local plaiting industry at a time when the making of hats in Luton was at its peak.
The plait hall, Cheapside, Luton c.1908
T. G. Hobbs © Luton Libraries
Hat making reached its peak in Luton in the 1870s. The 1871 census shows that out of a total population of 17,316 living in the township of Luton, 5615 men women and children were employed in plaiting, hat making and allied trades.
Types of Bedfordshire plait. From top to bottom:
Rows 1 and 2: 7-ends plain wholestraw, before and after clipping
Row 3: Brilliant split straw
Row 4: 17-end English Wave black-and-white improved
Row 5: Imitation Leghorn, made from bents
© Luton Museum
|Last updated 16th April 2007|