In Europe, there were competing straw hat industries producing straw plait for the straw hat industry. Between the centres, there was a considerable import and export trade; the demand for straw plait was driven by fashion and so there was a constant search for new colours of straw and for new plait patterns. Switzerland's principal competitors were the industries of Italy, England, Belgium, France and Eastern Europe. Following the import of cheap straw plait from China in the 1870s and then from Japan in the 1890s, the European plaiting centres went into decline. By the early 20th century, most had disappeared and those that remained were very small.
Italy was the main competitor of Switzerland and was famous for its Leghorn bonnets. By the 1800s, the Italians had the largest European straw industry employing 80,000 people. The industry was centred in villages around Florence, but there were other centres in the Piedmont and around Venice.
The Italian workers made wonderful plaits, which they stitched into bonnets, ready for export. They also worked for Wohlen companies that had set up offices and factories in and around Florence. In these factories, and in others set up by Italians, workers produced copies of the Swiss fancy products such as the loom-woven Bordüres.
From the beginning of the 1700s, the Italians grew straw especially for plaiting. This straw was fine and could be plaited into narrow, lightweight plaits, so there was no need to split straw.
Once made the plait was either sold in a long length, or it was stitched into the famous Leghorn bonnet by sewing it edge to edge. In the other European centres, the plait was normally stitched into a bonnet shape by overlapping the plait, thus creating a heavier, stiffer bonnet.
Leghorn bonnets were lightweight and flexible. They were expensive and highly prized items for ladies fashion. In the 20th century Italian plaiters made coarser whole straw plaits and split straw plaits to compete against their competitors in the Far East.
A common mistake to believe that Leghorn bonnets were made in the coastal town of Leghorn (Livorno). The straw products were exported through the port of Livorno; they were made in the villages around Florence.
England had a large and influential industry of similar size to that in Switzerland with some 60,000 people being employed in the mid 1800s. In the first half of the 1800s, straw plait and hats were being made throughout England, Scotland and Ireland, but by mid 1800s the majority of plaiters lived in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and North Essex. Straw plait was made in villages whilst the hat manufacturers were established in Dunstable, Luton and St Albans. Today, only Luton retains a straw hat industry. Wardown Park Museum (formerly known as Luton Museum and Art Gallery) has a big collection of plaits and hats.
The plaiters were famous for their high quality plait, made from whole straw and from split straw. One of its specialities was Improved plait made from pairs of splints.
Both plait and hats were exported from England. Swiss traders imported English plait, and English straw was sent to Switzerland for Swiss plaiters to use.
Perhaps the most famous British Straw hat is the Luton Boater. Maurice Chevalier regularly visited manufacturers in Luton to buy a stock of boaters.
Belgium was known for its high quality split straw plaits, and made the plaits into hats that were exported. The industry in Belgium was based in the Vallee du Geer around the town of Bassenge close to Liege and Maastricht.
In the 1400s a straw hat industry is mentioned in documents found in Liege, but does not seem to have developed until the late 1700s when a Priest introduced straw plaiting into the village of Glons in an attempt to alleviate poverty. His work was successful and the work spread to other villages in the area. At the beginning of the 1800s, bonnets made in Belgium were being exported to England and to the USA. The split straw plait is incredibly fine and beautifully made, they seem to have been a desirable fashion item. By the end of the 1800s trade journals in England reported that the Belgium split straw plaits were the best in the world.
Following the imports into Europe of plaits from the Far East, beginning the 1870s, the Belgian industry began to fail and hat manufacturers in the early 20th century turned to production of synthetic machine-made hat braids. The Second World War finally ended the industry.
France is thought to have had several centres of straw industry producing a variety of straw hats. Caussade and Septfonds in the Tarn et Garonne, close to Toulouse still have a small industry making and importing plait and hats. Each year in July, Caussade celebrates the industry with a three-day Hat Festival. Major competitions attract entries from around the world.
The straw industry of this area was never as large as that of Switzerland or England, but it was important to the local economy. Straw plait was made locally and straw hats were made in local factories. In Septfonds straw industry is first mentioned in 1792 and seems to have grown considerably in the 1800s with several factories producing hats. Caussade appears to have entered the straw industry later in the 1800s and continued into the 20th century. The company of André Rey was originally established in Septfonds in the early 1830s and still has a large factory in Caussade producing a variety of straw hats.
Hungary and Transylvania both had straw plaiting and hat manufacturing industries but at present not much is known about them. However, the surviving evidence indicates that it was well established during the 1800s with German hat manufacturers setting up factories in various villages in Eastern Hungary and Transylvania. We do not know how much of the production of straw plait and straw hats was exported to other European countries.
Straw plait dealers travelled between the many hat manufacturers in the various countries selling their wares. Their sample books contained patterns of plait in various colourways. Competitors were not adverse to taking snippets from the samples; passing them to their own plaiters to make. For this reason, and for others connected with fashion, you will sometimes find similar plait patterns and colourways made in the various centres.
Museo della Paglia e dell'Intreccio
Wardown Park Museum (formerly Luton Museum and Art Gallery)
Old Bedford Road
Bedfordshire LU2 7HA
Tel: 01582 546722
Centre D’etudes Archeologique Et Folklorique De La Vallee Du Geer
Rue du Geer,
14 - EBEN-EMAEL Belgium
Telephone ++31 (0) 42 86 2790)
Caussade Hat Festival
© Schweizerische Strohstiftung © Fondation Paille Suisse © Swiss Straw Foundation
c/o Kurszentrum Ballenberg, Museumsstrasse 96, CH-3858 Hofstetten