The Art and Craft of Straw Work

Marquetry (Intarsia)

With the exception of the work done by prisoners in the canton of Wallis, the making of straw marquetry on a commercial basis is not known in Switzerland.


The origins of straw marquetry are not clear. In the 1600s and 1700s, we find pieces made in France, Italy, The Netherlands and England. In France the town of Le Puy en Velay appears to have been a centre for the production of straw marquetry in the 1700s. Prisoners held in various parts of France produced straw marquetry for sale. This prison work began in the mid 1700s and continued until the late 1800s.


Probably the most well known period of straw marquetry dates from the time of the Napoleonic Wars (1793 to 1815) when prisoners produced a wide variety of items decorated with straw. This work is often referred to as French Prisoner of War work, but this is an inaccurate description as it was produced by prisoners originating not only from France. The Wardown Park Museum at Luton, the Peterborough Museum and the Lady Lever Gallery, Wirral, hold the large collections of straw marquetry. They include work produced by prisoners held at Norman Cross, which is close to Peterborough, and marquetry from other European centres.


Italian marquetry dating from the 1600s can be seen in various museum collections. It is interesting to see how in the early pieces, punches were used to produce straw shapes. Human figures were finished with faces, hands and feet cut from paper pictures. In early work it is also usual to find other materials, such as horn incorporated into pictures and onto boxes.


In England, the earliest reference to straw marquetry is found in the 1677 publication The Natural History of Oxfordshire by Robert Plot, where the work and working methods of Robert Wiseman, straw marquetry maker are recorded. Luton Museum has straw marquetry produced in Dunstable during the 1800s.


In New Mexico (USA) the work is known as encrusted work; the straw pieces are encapsulated in between layers of varnish. It is interesting to note that similar encrusted work is also found in Belarus; the techniques are similar, only the materials used, and design source changes.


Much straw marquetry from China and Japan was imported into Europe; we do not know when imports began, but we do know that work from Mongolia is still imported into Europe today. There are still commercial centres producing straw marquetry in the former Yugoslavia, Hungary, Belarus, Ukraine, and in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and the Philippines where greeting cards, boxes and pictures are produced.


To make straw marquetry the stem of straw must be split, flattened, softened and sometimes scraped into a flat ribbon. This is then glued to a paper backing and shapes are cut from the sheet. There are different forms of marquetry, inlay, onlay and mosaic.

Veronica Main