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Main Content

Weaving With Wheat | Winter 2015 Out Here Magazine

By Marti Attoun

Photography by Jeff Cooper

Marian Vavra isn’t a typical Kansas wheat farmer. She harvests her backyard crop by hand with scissors and a sickle, then weaves the sheaves into works of art.

“I love the way the straw feels, so satiny smooth,” says Marian, as she neatly folds and stacks four wheat stems into a pattern called a compass weave. It’s one of hundreds of patterns used in the ancient folk art of wheat weaving or plaiting.

Every room of Marian’s home in Rose Hill, Kan., glistens with her golden weavings — angels, floral bouquets, sacred crosses, Christmas ornaments, hearts, and old-fashioned courting favors. She wears dangly earrings and a dainty dragonfly pin woven from straw. Plastic tubs heaped with wheat hold the promise of future projects made by herself and her students.

Known as the “Wheat Lady,” Marian gives weekly demonstrations at Exploration Place science center in nearby Wichita and through the years has introduced hundreds of schoolchildren to the craft.

“I want children to know that we can do art from natural products and also I want them to know how important wheat is to the world,” she says.

The wheat ambassador actually grew up on a dairy farm in Letts, Iowa, where her parents still farm. When she and her husband, Bill, moved to Kansas in 1981 for his job with an aircraft manufacturer, Marian found herself surrounded by wheat instead of cows. She’d already tried her hand at wheat weaving using a kit from a crafts store. Now, her farming neighbors offered her all the wheat she could weave right at her back door.


Fold by fold, Marian followed diagrams in a book and taught herself how to plait and knot the stems to form intricate designs. She worked solo for about five years before discovering the Kansas Association of Straw Artists.


“That opened a whole new world for me,” Marian says about the group. She became active in the state and National Association of Wheat Weavers and formed a local guild. The more she learned, the more ingrained she became in the folk art. She bought a tabletop spinner so she could split and spin straw into fine thread.


Marian’s skill and stunning artistry earned her an invitation to demonstrate wheat weaving at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. She’s also taught classes in Switzerland and one of her crosses is exhibited at the Strohmuseum (Straw Museum) in Wohlen, Switzerland.


The Process Begins


Planning for Marian begins with harvesting her own or neighbors’ heirloom wheat varieties, Turkey Red and Larned, which grow about waist high. The long stems make it ideal for weaving. Wearing leather boots with socks pulled over her jeans for extra leg protection, she cuts the wheat with an old-fashioned hand sickle.


Marian harvests the winter wheat when the heads are still plump and swollen. She ties the wheat bundles with twine and hangs them in her garage to dry. When starting a project, she removes the leaves and sorts the stems by size. Then she soaks the stems in a tub of water for about 30 minutes to make them pliable.

“Every culture in the world has some kind of fiber art,” Marian says as her fingers nimbly manipulate straws, crossing over and under to form different patterns and spirals. She can weave as many as eight straws at a time. The plaits have charming names, including catfoot, batwing, arrow, Luton railroad, and Dunstable.

Along with weaving, she does straw applique or marquetry designs by first splitting and flattening the hollow straws. Then she glues the pieces onto a backing material.

“The artistic part is the way you lay the grain line,” she says.

The history and lore of wheat weaving fascinates Marian nearly as much as the handiwork. The art has its origin in ancient agricultural beliefs and customs when farmers believed that the spirit of the harvest lived in the grain.

To guarantee a bountiful harvest, they saved the last bit of wheat and shaped it into a woven object. When the next crop was planted, the weaving was returned to the field so the spirit could be released.

That ritual faded, but wheat weavings always have been associated with good luck and became popular courting favors in the 18th century. Harvesters plaited braids for their sweethearts, who wore them over their hearts. By the 19th century, wheat weaving was a mainstay of the straw hat and bonnet industry. Popular designs were patented and named, such as the Dunstable plait, for the town where they originated.

Marian feels that thread of history and an appreciation for nature’s gifts every day as she sits at her dining room table weaving the golden stems into stunning works of art.

“This is my way,” she says, “of being connected to my farming roots.”