Corn Husk Dolls and Play: A Fall Craft
Corn Husks Offer an Inexpensive Fall Tradition
Guest Post Writer: Anne Littlewolf
As the fall approaches, and corn crops are coming in, this is a timely post. Thanks for author Anne Littlewolf for this fun and whimsical guest post.
There is an old saying that the more complex the mind, the more important the need to play. This is probably one of the truest axioms of our world and so let's look at some of the traditions and treasures of toys and playing. In this post we will revisit the incredibly versatile corn, which you can read more about kernels and ears of corn in our previous post, and see that this amazing plant offers even more than just good nutrition.
While it is impossible to say when and were the use of toys began, from time immemorial, children have found toys as a means of practicing their culture, their language and their fantasies. One of the most amazing sites for learning about toys from the past and present is found at Toy Info.org. It gives a great overview of toys from each millennium and explores the importance of play. As a part of cognitive development, children will take objects and make them into imaginary friends, tools or situations, and from my experience, the simplest things seem to be the best. This is because simple objects don't constrict or confine the imagination. Anything can be anything and that kind of creative thought enhances understanding of the greater outside world.
There are many types of play, and each has its own characteristics and importance. For this post we don't have time for all of them, but this this is from Aister's early learning framework:
I think everyone has had the experience of dearly loving a doll, a blanket, a teddy bear or even a toy truck. Those objects give us a companionship that nothing else can, it gives us someone to talk to, someone to hear our doubts, fears and wishes without judgment or retaliation. There is archaeological evidence that children have had toys since the earliest days of prehistoric Native Americans, Inuits, and cultures in Mexico developed toys with wheeled carts. It is thought that toys have also played a role in the development of gender identity, though this is a very flexible area. It has been noted by researchers that infant boys look at and study dolls every bit as much as infant girls. It may be that they are beginning to identify the adults and their roles in life, as well as their own roles as they mature into their tribes or cultures.
In most cultures, food played a pivotal role in the development of their society and intercultural relations. Not only did it provide sustenance, but it offered a source of trade and value. One such food is corn. The exact family history of corn is rather vague, but common scientific thought says that what Americans call "corn" is the end result of years of careful breeding of a grass native to central Mexico. The Aztecs and Olmecs are said to have cross-bred these grasses to create a plant that has become central to the American diet and well known throughout the world. While the grain itself has become incredibly versatile, we are more interested here in the outer protective leaves of the corn ear.
CORN HUSK DOLLS
Corn husk dolls are some of the oldest and simplest of toys to make and their origins are unclear. Some creative somebody long ago soaked corn husks and twisted them this way and that to invent a truly remarkable and simple doll.
Native Americans such as the Penobscot, Oneida, and Iroquois were well known crafters of corn husk dolls, but the teachings that went with them were/are as valuable as the dolls themselves.
Whenever you find a doll from the Oneida, and other tribes, you will see it has no facial features. This forms a very basic and important lesson. In communal (tribal) living, cooperation and mutual support is critical and self-aggrandizement is frowned upon. The legend of the No-Face Doll tells of a young woman whose vanity cost her dearly, and the no-face doll teaches the child to see themselves as part-and-parcel of life and that they are valued just as they are. Another theory is that by giving the doll a face that it imbues the doll with a spirit or soul. It would be wrong to sell any living "person" or doll with a soul, so the practice of giving dolls faces is frowned upon. The Native dolls were adopted by colonial Americans as play-toys for their own children and have drifted down to us today as reminders of a different time and place.
The Native Americans were not the only culture to use corn husk dolls There are examples of dolls from Africa, Mexico, Transylvania and more. The beautiful images from the Jarabe Mixteco and Betaza (above) are examples of elaborate corn husk dolls from Oaxaca Mexico.
HOW TO MAKE CORNHUSK DOLLS
Where do you start to make these simple toys? Easy enough, go to the local farmer's market and buy fresh ears of corn, or stop by a roadside fruit stand and treat yourself to a dozen ears or so. Often grocery stores will have fresh ear corn available, but they generally will trim the husks and silk to a point where they are unusable by the crafter. If you cannot find fresh ears, craft stores may have packaged dried corn husks. You can also ask your local farmer, after he or she harvests their corn field, if you can scavenge the husks.
When you use husks, look to make sure they are a nice, even color and have a consistent texture and are not riddled with worm holes. You might even consider saving the silk tassel to use as hair for your doll, but it can be challenging to work with since it is very fine, and tends to stick to everything. If you collect husks from a farmer's field you can also give them a very light bleach soak (5%), and then dry them. Make sure they are completely dry and yellow in color, since green or damp husks will draw mold. Some crafters will recommend using green corn husks, which is probably a little easier, but it's your choice. Personally, I prefer the dried ones for authenticity. Once you're ready to work with the husks, soak them for 10 minutes in warm water to soften the fibers. You'll need the husks from 2 large ears to make 1 doll. Have string/twine and scissors handy.
Should you want to color the husks to make clothing, etc., soak the husks for about 30 minutes in warm water with a few drops of food coloring or use coffee or tea to create lovely brown tones. When the husks are to your liking, lay them out to drain a little, then stack 4 together, slightly fanned out and with the points of the leaves facing down. Trim the top edge to a reasonable straight edge, and about 2-3 inches from the top edge, tie the husks together firmly. Turn the leaves upside down and smooth them down. The top now is ball shaped and that will be the head of your doll.
Take another husk and roll it up from the long side. About 1/2" to 3/4" from the end of this roll, tie the "wrist" of the arm and then tuck this just under the head of the doll. Tie the "waist" of the doll with another piece of string. (Another way to make the arms is to braid three pieces of husk together and tie the wrists before inserting it.)
Take another piece of husk and drape it around the shoulders in a criss-cross pattern. You might want to loosely bind these together using a small piece of string or twist tie--mostly to hold them in place until the next step is complete. Using 4 or 5 husks, create a skirt around the waist and tie all pieces firmly with string/twine. You now have a basic corn husk doll, and from here, it's just a matter imagination.
Should you desire to make legs, simply separate the "skirt" into two parts and tie them apart and shape them into legs with string at the base of the body, at the knee area and again at the ankle area. String small beads into a necklace if you like. Add a small cloth apron or hat, or even take a piece of fake fur to make a robe, a shawl, a shirt or most any garment you can devise. It's completely a matter of your own cleverness and creativity. When the doll is finished, allow it to air dry completely. (If you're really inventive, see about creating a corn husk dog, horse, or cow to accompany your new little friend! The technique is the same, you just have to envision the structure of a dog, etc., and tie the corn husks accordingly.)
What's really fun and special about this is the fact that you have created something with a long history and tradition behind it. Take some time to play "doll house" with your kids. Find a great cardboard box and add your own inventive furnishings. Matchboxes make wonderful trundle beds, upside-down coffee cups are great chairs, thimbles are wonderful cups of tea and, well, YOU add the rest. It's so much fun and the memories and special times you build are irreplaceable. Not only that, but you're adding to the collective imagination of all people, and you're adding a gift to a child who can turn it into a special friend or even just a cherished memento. They make a sweet little home accent as well and you can have the deeply satisfying pleasure and pride of saying "I made that!"
Here is a great website that you can use to see very simple and clear step-by-step instructions from the Teachersfirst website.