Wonders of wheat
By ABBY BELDEN
LURAY -- The perfect piece of wheat is long from head to its first joint.
The beards of the wheat are close to the head that might have a smidgen of green to it.
It is the perfect straw to create a corn dolly.
"I'm in search of a perfect straw," said Doris Johnson, Luray. "But they all look beautiful and beckoning in the right stage."
Johnson has 40 years of experience in making corn dollies -- or a wheat figurine.
She first was introduced to the craft while studying at a university in England while on an exchange Rotary scholarship from 1971 to 1972.
She purchased a lantern corn dolly while at a festival that is similar to a state fair for agriculture, but she wanted to bring more than just the lantern home. So, she purchased a book by Alec Coker that provided directions on how to make corn dollies.
"Instead of an example, I thought I'd like to bring home how to do it," she said. "When you come from Kansas, wheat is everywhere, so it's a good thing to do something with."
Johnson said she called home to ask her parents to put back a sheaf of wheat for her during harvest time.
When she got home, she taught herself how to plait the wheat, or braid it, which is how the textures and shapes of the corn dollies are created.
Johnson participated in her first craft show in 1973 and also was teaching others how to make corn dollies.
"When I started teaching here, I tried to keep that name but it quickly became wheat weaving instead. So I kind of gave up on that one," Johnson said.
The first step in the process is collecting wheat, which has become tricky.
"The wheats that are grown are grown to be short, which isn't what I want, and they're grown to have ugly heads for some reason," she said.
Once the straw has been selected, Johnson said the wheat must be soaked for 15 minutes and then tied together with thread in a clove hitch knot.
After the soaking, the straw is pliable and the plaiting process can begin, which to Johnson is all about technique and structure.
"Once you get one technique, it leads on to other things," she said. "The way I look at it is through structure, and the structure lets things develop. I hardly do a design starting with a design; my designs are structure-driven."
Johnson said different plaits result in different textures and also the amount of wheat, or straw, used determines how wide the project becomes.
Johnson said the straw can be split, cut, dyed, and almost every piece, new or cut can be used.
"I don't really feel like I'm wasting anything," she said. "This can all go into stars, or I can split them and make them into other things."
Johnson can make a variety of corn dollies from crosses to Nativity scenes, to breadbaskets and more.
While she has made various designs of corn dollies, choosing a favorite seems impossible.
"I like them all," she said with a laugh.
In the 40 years Johnson has been wheat weaving, she participated in a traveling exhibit in the '70s that visited Los Angeles and Washington.
In addition to the work Coker and Johnson did together at the exhibits, the duo also wrote the book "The Complete Book of Straw Craft and Corn Dollies: Techniques and Projects," which was published in 1987.
While Johnson hasn't been to many craft fairs lately, she has kept teaching. She is teaching a small group of 4-H students.
"This is another reason why I want kids to make more than one, so they don't settle for something that's not as good as they could make it," she said. "I think once they get a good one, they'll want to do the better one."
Johnson said the craft is not especially difficult.
"It's not," she said. "It's just a matter of rhythm, and every plait has its own rhythm."