Nelson brings joy to others through old-fashioned wheat weaving
The intricate braiding, loops and design that went into the craft drew the eye of more than one spectator during the recent Oktoberfest in Sidney, Neb.
What was more interesting was that the designs were made from wheat raised on the family farm and crafted by Potter, Neb., artisan Peg Nelson.
Weaving wheat into crafts is considered an old world form of art. Nelson said that in other parts of the world, like England, villages each had their own design of weaving wheat after they harvested the crop. They would make designs from the last of their wheat crop, which they referred to as corn dollies. They believed it would bring good luck, so when they planted wheat in the spring, they would break up the kernels from the corn dollies and plant them in the ground.
Nelson has woven wheat into many different crafts since she and her husband married 40 years ago. Coming from eastern Nebraska with a non-farm background, she joined the Nebraska Wheat Hearts, since women couldn’t be members of the Nebraska Wheat Growers Association at that time. “We made things out of wheat for business members as a thank you for their support. Some of the women knew how to weave wheat and had made things out of it, and I was intrigued with it. I wanted to learn how so I found some books and started teaching myself,” she said.
It’s a hobby that has continued for the last 38 years. “My son was about 2 years old when I started dabbling in it. I didn’t make much in the beginning, but I got better at it and more comfortable with it, and found a place to work besides the kitchen table. My kids were always saying they had wheat beards in their socks,” she chuckled.
In 2002, Nelson joined the National Wheat Weavers Association, where women and men from all over the world gather to share their art. “I wish I could make it to more of their conventions, but they always seem to be at the wrong time of year for me. I made it to one in Greeley, and I was fascinated with the art that I saw there,” she said.
Nelson creates many of her designs from books, and tweaks them to make it her own. “Sometimes, people will ask me if I can make certain things, and I am willing to try. One of the more unique ones was a turkey made from wheat. I wasn’t sure if I could, but I think it turned out okay. I used black bearded wheat for the tail feathers, which gave it a unique look. A lot of my designs are more traditional, like the Welsh fans and house blessings that are popular in villages in England. I just make a braid and go with it,” she said.
Some designs are more tedious and complicated than others. Nelson describes a cowboy that she makes from wheat weaving that is difficult because the proportions have to be just right. “It has several different braids. There is a lot of start and stop, start and stop, and I just don’t have the dexterity in my fingers any more as I get older,” she said.
THE RIGHT VARIETY
Picking the right variety of wheat also impacts how easy or difficult it will be to make into something. “We raise wheat ourselves, so I started with Scout 66. I like it because it has a long, slender straw which is good for weaving. As less farmers grew it, my husband tried to keep some back each year to plant for me,” she said.
She has also used Thunderbird, Pronghorn, Centura, and most recently, Goodstreak. “I really like the Goodstreak variety because it has long straws that can be 18-20 inches long from the head. Its not a real coarse wheat, which plays a factor in what I make from it. Some of the wheat we have harvested in the past has short straws and doesn’t produce a lot of wheat for weaving. It is frustrating because I don’t like starting projects where I have to cut and splice constantly. When you look at a crop of Goodstreak in the field, it is such a nice looking variety that I can’t wait to sit down and weave with it,” she said.
One of the most labor intensive parts of being a wheat weaver is harvesting the wheat. Nelson recalls taking a generator in the back of a pickup to the field and harvesting wheat with a hedge trimmer. Her husband has tried wind rowing the wheat, but it lays the wheat out all over so it has to be gathered and bundled.
“The harvesting method that works best is very primitive,” she said. She takes scissors to the wheat field, grabs the wheat with her left hand and cuts it off at the ground level with the right hand. The wheat is placed in bundles on the ground, and she goes back and ties each bundle with baling twine. “It usually takes me three or four days. I go out early in the day before it gets too hot. My daughter used to help me when she lived at home. We battled the sweat bees and the heat, and it was itchy. I don’t think she was ever impressed with that job, and I don’t think she misses it much. It is very labor intensive,” she said, laughing.
Nelson said people are just confused when they see her in the field harvesting wheat that way. “It is amusing to us. Once, we even had someone report to the sheriff that someone was in our field stealing our wheat,” she said. “Most people don’t harvest that way.”
Harvesting usually consists of more than 200 bundles of wheat that are maybe 5 inches around. She stores the bundles in a quonset or garage that is well ventilated. As the wheat dries, the bundles will loosen. When she is ready to weave, Nelson sorts through each bundle and cleans it. She sorts the heads for uniformity and soaks the wheat in cold water to soften it so it can be weaved.
Her wheat woven creations can be found at “From Nebraska” in the Hay Market District in Lincoln and in her own store, “A Collective Gathering,” in Potter. She also participates in some craft shows in Nebraska and Wyoming. “Many times, I will just get calls and emails from people who have seen things they would like me to make. I had someone email and ask me to make a wheat weaving of a brand, as a gift for their son. I’ve also added wheat weaving to bridal bouquets and boutonnieres for weddings,” she said.
— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.