Corn Husk Braiding for Wool Wheel Heads
By Johannes Zinzendorf and Zephram de Colebi
The Hermitage, Pitman, Pennsylvania
An unexpected result of the pandemic has been time to catch up with long-postponed projects. Bro. Zephram has taken advantage of this time to inspect the spinning wheels in the Hermitage collection and actually get each one ready for spinning. Even if some will rarely, if ever, be used, it's good to know they can be.
You, dear reader, know the kinds of wheels to which we refer, those we buy because we can't resist them, and then put them away with every good intention of getting back to them one day. Well, for these wheels, that day has come, with drive sticks for the treadle wheels and drive bands for all of them, as well as making sure the wooden screws turn and the flyers spin around and draw on thread.
For some of the wool wheels, Zephram had to replace rotted leathers that held the spindles to the maidens. But a select few examples, primarily from New England, used braided corn husks, and he wanted to duplicate them. He carefully removed the remains of the braids and analyzed and conjectured how they were made. After trial and error, this is the procedure he developed.
1. Begin with fresh, green corn husks still on the corn ears before they turn brown, dry and brittle. This is definitely a seasonal craft. Peel off the individual husks and lay them on a table to completely dry.
2. Cut off the tops and bottoms of each piece to get a rectangular sheet.
3. Soak overnight.
4. Tear a sheet of husk into narrow, ½ inch strips. They tear easily down the seams (ridges) to get even pieces. Do not cut them.
5. Next, do cut some strips in half, for short lengths, and in 2/3s for medium length strips, while keeping others full length. Begin the braiding with all three lengths, so they do not run out at the same time when additional lengths are needed for splicing.
6. Roll each piece tightly to make a narrow tube. Tie the rolled ends together with strong linen thread. Put the tied end into a vise or clamp to hold it tightly so both hands are free for braiding.
7. Start traditional braiding, with the three ends splayed out, right, center, and left. Lay the right one over the center piece, then the left over the center. The original center is now at the right, so lay it over the new center, then lay the new left over the center. Continue this way, right over center, left over center, until only a short stub is left.
8. A single braided length will suffice for most bat's heads, but Minor's heads and similar styles require greater length, which is made by overlapping a new, unrolled piece of husk and wrapping or rolling it around the short length so nothing is sticking out. From here on, only attach long pieces of husk. Adding one new piece to each of the three original pieces should provide enough length for most Minor's heads. When the husks run out, the braiding is done, so wrap and tie it with strong linen thread and then snip off any loose ends.
9. Take the braid out of the vise and pull it tightly to stretch it, which keeps it from clumping in the wood tubes of the head.
10. Bend the braid in the middle to form a “U” shape. Lay the spindle against the head and wrap both braid ends around it. Before pushing them into the tube, place one end slightly ahead of the other so you're not trying to push both of them through at the same time. An awl can be used to assist in getting them through, but be careful not to rip the braids. Pull the ends through the other side so they are even.
11. The braids are held in place by inserting a small softwood wedge between them and taping it gently with a hammer to fix them tightly so they are not pulled out under pressure of the drive band.
12. Finally, wrap and tie the ends with thread to lash them together.
See the photo captions for additional instructions. These new corn husk braids match the originals and provide an authentic look to restorations.
1. This is all that was left of the original corn husk braid in one head.
2. Original pieces of corn husk with two wooden wedges.
3. Corn husks soaking in water.
4. Minor's heads that need braiding.
5. Bat's heads and a direct drive post head ready for braids.
6. Trimmed rectangular corn husks.
7. Three lengths of trimmed husks, short, medium and long.
8. Wrapping the initial three pieces together with strong thread.
9. Inserting base into vise to leave hands free for braiding.
10. Beginning the braiding.
11. Overlapping the first extension over the short existing piece to splice it into the braid.
12. The new piece is wrapped around the end of the piece to which it is being added, then held while braiding continues until it is secure and won't come loose.
13. The finished braid. Taken out of the vise, it is first stretched to remove any kinks.
14. Bend the braid in the middle to form a U, and position one end slightly in front of the other end, so you're not trying to push both ends through at the same time, which will plug up the tube. Hold the spindle against the head while inserting both ends around it.
15. Use an awl if necessary to help push the ends through the tube, being careful not to rip the braid.
16. Using needle-nosed pliers can help pull the ends out the other side.
17. Snug them tightly against the spindle.
18. Small wooden wedges can be shaped with a knife.
19. The wedges are inserted between the two ends of the braid.
20. Use a hammer to gently tap the wedge into the head to securely fasten the ends.
21. If the ends are long enough, make a loop and then tightly wrap and tie it with strong linen thread or, as here, a length of unspun hemp fiber. If the ends are too short to loop, simply wrap and tie them off.
22. The finished braid in place. Duplicate the steps for the second braid, then the head is ready to use.
23. An unusual precursor to the Minor's head was this single-arm head from Maine whose spindle was also held in place with corn braiding. Tensioning is done by loosening the metal screw and adjusting the movable vertical post that holds the accelerating wheel on a horizontal metal bolt with threads at the end for a nut. The double wheel arrangement is a replacement, as is the spindle.
24. On the back side, a metal flange attached to the post slides up and down in a slot, then tightening the screw holds the post in place. Small nails are inserted to fasten the braids. This fascinating piece was in collection storage for years before Zephram decided to look at it.