by Doyenne Rowan Nightshade
I love the autumn: the clear, cold days and chill winds that blow your hair in your face; the leaves turning colors; and the “pumpkin patches” that start appearing in every vacant lot. This month, we celebrate the coming of the harvest by making corn dollies, a traditional activity that actually has nothing to do with maize, and witches ladders, a form of knot magic.
The name “corn dolly” is something of a misnomer in this day and age. They aren’t made of maize and they often don’t resemble a person at all. The word “corn” evolved from ‘kern,’ the old English word for grain, and “dolly” may have evolved from “idol,” so “grain idol” is a more accurate term. If you look for information on corn dollies nowadays, you mostly find corn-husk dolls, so “wheat weaving” is the more commonly used term now. Corn dollies were frequently in the shapes of circles, hearts, loops, and stars (sometimes even goats) and were hung prominently in the home through the fallow winter months. It’s thought the Druids believed that the corn spirit lived in the grain fields and was made homeless at harvest time. Hollow forms, the corn dollies, made from the last of the grain harvest were woven to house the spirit, until the dolly could be plowed back into the field in the spring.
There are numerous websites and books that have detailed instructions on making beautiful and elaborate corn dollies, if you’re so inclined. For our purposes, I will describe how to make a very simple, basic one.
In choosing your grain stalks, you should select long ones that are straight and slender, and measure at least 18 inches from the base of the head to the first joint on the stalk. Green stalks will never ripen to a golden color after picking, so bear that in mind as well; golden is the traditional color for corn dollies. Just before you start, you’ll need to temper the stalks by soaking them in cool water for 20 to 40 minutes. Never use hot water, as it will cause the grain to lose it’s natural shine. After soaking, wrap the stalks in a wet towel and lay them aside for about 15 minutes before use. Once they’re ready, you can continue to use them all day as long as you keep them wrapped in the damp towel, or until they get too soggy, whichever comes first.
Five stalks of grain, all the same length.
Two lengths of string or ribbon
A large, flat working surface
Stand the stalks on ends to line them up evenly. Fasten them with string or ribbon just below the heads, giving you five long ends below the string and a bundle of grain heads above.
Next, spread out the long ends so that they’re fanned out on the table and the heads are standing up perpendicular to the working surface.
For ease and clarity, arrange the long ends so they point directionally, relative to you. (i.e. North, South, East, and West). Point the fifth stalk East, as well. Now you should have one stalk each pointing North, West, and South, with the remaining two pointing East, one on top of the other.
Take the bottom East stalk and pass it under both the top East stalk and the North stalk.
Now rotate the entire bundle one quarter-turn clockwise, leaving you with two stalks in the East again (having moved them from North to East).
Again, pass the lower East stalk under the top East and the North stalks, then rotate again one quarter-turn clockwise.
Continue repeating this step, passing the stalk under and rotating the dolly. Soon the long ends will begin to curl up around the heads, forming a basket shape. This is good, it’s what we’re going for. Continue weaving until the basket covers the heads completely.
Gather the loose ends together and tie them off with another piece of string or ribbon.
That’s it, you’re done! You may wish to make a loop from ribbon or wire to hang it with, or even weave ribbon in with the grain stalks themselves just for fanciness. You can also use this method to make lavender bundles. Once you have the basics down, there are almost infinite variations to try.