Ethnography of a material culture: the processing of straw

A tradition of knowledge born in the hills of Marostica, Veneto (Italy)

This article is the result of my personal research of master’s thesis, unfortunately underestimated by many, but which led to the cultural exchange between the small village of Marostica and the Chilean town of Valle Colchagua and some professors and researchers of the University of Santiago de Chile.


Gathering testimonies from a few interlocutors (over 80 years old) I began to understand not only the labours of work and society of the late 1930s but also and above all the importance that this poor art had and still has in the lives of those who they are still there and they can remember the past. How was the processing of straw born? Why did it develop? Who worked and how was the working day organized?

It all starts with a legend …

“Do you know the story of straw?” this was the first question that was put to me by my interlocutors who took care to tell me over and over again, aware that this may not have had an established historical weight but that, however, was the only source to which we could attribute the origin of straw processing. The processing of the drèssa de paja (straw braid) began in the seventeenth century, more precisely in 1650 AD, in the hills of Lusiana by Nicoletto dello Stabile also known as Nicolò dal Sasso coming from Contrà Dal Sasso near Laverda.

Raised in a family of humble origins, he started helping his father in the woods from an early age and this became his job once he became a boy; his heart was beating for the young and wealthy Beppina who, however, had already been promised in marriage by her father to an older man, an agreement which she refused to follow being in love with the young lumberjack. The two decided to escape together in the night but Beppina’s father ambushed them in which Nicoletto was injured, the latter escaped not out of cowardice but because he knew that the wounding of a powerful man like Beppina’s father would bring him directly to the gallows.


The travel continues…

The misfortunes did not end for the young man who during his escape was captured in Padua and transferred to Venice on the unfounded accusation of espionage. The Doge spared his life but forced him to serve the Serenissima and its Republic in a galley headed east. A few days passed and the galley was attacked and stormed by the Turks who plundered the galley and kidnapped Nicoletto.

Determined to convert him to Islam they abandoned him to an apparently deserted island, the island was in fact inhabited by a hermit who taught Nicoletto how to weave the stalks of marsh straw so as to obtain a hat to protect himself from the sun in the hottest hours, the hermit taught the young man the secrets of marsh straw, where to find it and how to work it by promising him one thing: his people, with this job, would no longer suffer from hunger. Months passed and Nicoletto managed to return home thanks to the passage offered by another galley of the Serenissima Republic. He ran through the districts and entered Beppina’s house where he saw her in the company of other women and children, the two hugged each other and the story obviously has a happy ending: the two stayed together after the woman’s father allowed the two to join.

This story can be traced back to a short story divided into seven chapters of just a hundred pages, it is not certain whether this was written to entertain or justify in some way the flourishing processing of straw. It was written by Abbot Francesco Sartori and is dated 1857 d.C.


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The work of the drèssa, from the field to the hands

Life was dedicated to the house and the fields, the bonfire was the only time of the day dedicated to recreation where stories, legends, nursery rhymes were told or simply played with shadows, in the light of a dim candle. The landscape was built and the Marosticense hills were terraced so as to allow the cultivation of wheat on the various steps, the famous farmhouses or dry-stone walls; the most cultivated species was the marzuolo but the vernisso was preferred as it had a greater endurance of the low temperatures and the variable time of the hill. 



Once the wheat was ready, sesolation was started with sesola, an agricultural tool similar to a large sharp hook on the inside: the stalks were cut and collected in bunches of various sizes which then vanished left to dry in the sun, if the weather allowed it, or in the attic. The stem was called fastugo and a set of intertwined fastughi formed the braid, the dressa; before being braided, however, they had to be left to soften inside a bucket of water, without this operation the single stem would have broken.


The plot

To begin the plot, a lot of skill was needed, a practical knowledge that could hardly be explained with words but rather needed to be seen, observed, contemplated and put into practice over and over again, refining with the years and mastery. The finished product and its quality depended on the number of braided bags and their size, the stems were passed through a pitted sieve and divided according to the diameter, from the thickest and most rustic to the finest and thinnest.

Several fastughi intertwined: five, seven, nine, ten, eleven and eighteen based on the ability of those who braided, and the drèssa was produced, a braid of fastughi of different types, from the roughest to the most refined and then the braids, collected in single pachi, they were placed inside some crates containing embers and sulfur so the smoke would have bleached them and made them more pleasant and smooth.



Once the braids were made, they presented imperfections that had to be adjusted with scissors, a nice job that was left to the children who cut the protrusions of the stems and imperfections so as to make the dresse uniform. The coarser, coarser braids were used to pack bags destined for shopping down on the market (the famous bags) or for work hats, this type of braids was packaged by short stories as the thickness of the stem and the least amount of fastughi to weave allowed to do a simpler job unlike the old women who instead braided thinner stems and in greater number to make elegant bags and panama-style hats.

Sale of the drèssa: a first phase of the trade

Once the drèsse (straw) were packaged, which were measured with a special tool called brassolàro, similar to the upper part of the back of a chair, they were stacked in pachi or skeins. One pàco corresponded to twelve turns of braid around the brassolàro which corresponded to about twenty meters of braid.




A skilled woman was able to pack a paco and a half a day, hard work if one considers that it was still necessary to work on the fields, take care of the children and the elderly, from here we understand how this type of processing was carried out by every single component of the family: the children, so to speak, weaved bags while going to school and during the afternoons of the game they delighted in making the job a pleasure by climbing trees and competing with those who could braid more quickly. Obviously the winner was whoever touched their braid on the ground first. The braids were sometimes sold to derive extra earnings from the production of bags and hats and once a week the pacàro was expected who was the one who with a cart made the tour of the districts to collect the dresse and sell them to other families or the first few industries.


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The braid products

The drèsse (straw) were therefore not standard but varied but based on the tastes and the search for the trade. The speciéto braid was composed of five or nine fastughi and was intended for the production of classy female hats, the hooded dressa was used to decorate the edge of the female hats. 



The products of the braid were mainly two: bags and hats. These products were requested by people who passed from house to house to request a price quote and the following week they returned to collect the product. For bags, as well as hats, wooden moulds were used and proceeded entirely by hand with the help of some work tools; the packaging of a bag and a hat could take several days depending on the shape, the braid used and the quality of the product requested. Prices could vary from twenty cents to five lire but the finer products, such as a panama-style hat, for example, could cost up to three hundred lire.


Manual labour and industry

The intertwining of fastughi for many years has been mainly manual but, as in every part of the world, the industry also took hold in the Marosticense and many girls were hired in factories where bags and hats were manufactured on an industrial level with a cheaper braid from China




My interlocutors have shown me several times the difference between a manual and an industrial product, the appearance, the quality and the feel to the touch stand out in everything: The products with the Chinese braid were cheaper but definitely poorer enough to come off in a short time, the products of the districts, their hats and bags, are still shown off by the elderly on the fields.


Conclusions: The misery industry, between war and life

The stories of my interlocutors were based on past times but alive in their memories, memories, those of M. of when she walked several kilometres to reach the market to get the cheese, when there was no more, the bread and the oil and the fear, going back, to find the Germans who more than once seized her expenditure and the money obtained from the shopping and so it was necessary to keep going.

The fear of when the bombings were heard and in the screams of “Pippo comes! Pippo is coming! ” she hurriedly blew on the candles and closed the balconies of the windows hoping that Pippo (the warplane) hadn’t noticed the light of the candles. Remember what is remembered today by the elderly as the misery industry because this had given work to dozens of families but certainly had not enriched them, had given them what to live, a pastime and a job before everything even when the youngest daughters were employed in the industries, where the wages were a little higher, the elderly and the little ones still dedicated themselves to the weaving of the stems so that they could earn something more. A production born from a legend, now passed but a witness of the work of our “old” we have to say thank you.


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