Orkney and Shetland had a thriving straw plaiting industry in the early to mid-1800s. Straw was plaited to make men’s hats and ladies’ bonnets, which were sold to merchants in London and also to Greenock traders. Straw hats became a fashion accessory in the Georgian period, and although there was a dip in their popularity around 1840 at the start of the Victorian period, they soon came back into fashion.
The industry continued in Orkney until 1870 when it ended due to the reduction in duty charged on foreign imports.
The Shetland straw industry was introduced as a way to diversify from the traditional crofting and fishing industries. It reached its peak in 1809 when it employed approximately 200 women in factories in Lerwick.
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It did not survive for long in Shetland as the soil was not rich enough to produce the high quality straw that was needed for the fashion industry. With its contrasting fertile farmland, Orkney was able to grow rye which was then dried and bleached before women plaited it in their own homes. This cottage industry was worth £30,000 at its peak, approximately £2.4 million in today’s money.
Bonnets were sold for £4 at market and 140 yards (128m) of the finest plait was required to make a bonnet. This is longer than the length of a standard football pitch.
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