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Wheat weaver keeps ancient tradition alive in Dent County

(collapsable)→
Tue, 25 Jan 2022 11:48:00

Suzanne Douglass is one of a few hundred people in America keeping alive the ancient art of wheat weaving.

The artform had all but died out in the United States by the middle part of the 20th century. In 1976 Bethel College (Kansas) brought expert wheat weavers from the United Kingdom to revive the artform in America by teaching those interested in learning. However, it wasn’t until many years later that Douglass’ interest sparked. In 1976, Douglass was graduating and joining the United States Marines that October.

Wheat weaving (also known as straw weaving) is an artform that dates back millenia—likely for as long as grain has been cultivated.

“Wheat weaving probably originated in the fertile crescent,” said Douglass.

The earliest archaeologically confirmed occurrence of grain cultivation is traced to some time between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago in the “fertile crescent”, which is a region that includes the Tigris, the Euphrates, and the Nile and is regarded by most scholars as the cradle of human civilization.

The cultivation of grain has undoubtedly left an indelible mark on the development of human societies and cultures around the world. Notably, wheat weaving is one of the earliest artforms, predated only by painting and pottery. Subsequently, wheat weaving has been a part of numerous cultures all over the world throughout the centuries. The artform came to America initially by way of Europe, where wheat weaving was sometimes utilized in superstitious practices.

One of the pieces Douglass is working on is shaped like a sun and will have a moon along with four “gods eyes” in each corner. This piece is a prime example of why wheat weaving is often associated with occultic or paganistic practices. However, for Douglass, far from it being some pagan icon, it reminds her of God’s hand in her own life. “In the stars your handiwork I see,” said Douglass, referencing Psalm 19.

“People come up to me just about every year accusing me of being a pagan,” said Douglass. “I’m not, but I know people who are and I think that’s a personal choice that they make.”

Some wheat weavers throughout the ages did and still do today have a ties to religious practices related to harvest rituals and other elements; however, it’s important to note that such associations are based around the intentionality of the artists.

Douglass wasn’t always a wheat weaver. However, she has always enjoyed working with her hands. “Since I was a little, little girl, I enjoyed playing in the dirt and mud,” she said. “Different from other kids who might make mudpies, I would make sculptures. I was kind of weird that way, I guess.”

Douglass was first familiarized with wheat weaving while running a booth at Shannondale in Shannon County.

“The next table over was for wheat weaving—I fell in love,” Douglass shared.

For Douglass, there is something special about the work—there is a bit of serenity in wheat weaving. Douglass doesn’t profess to be an absolute expert on everything wheat weaving related. She is continually learning. “I just got my straw spinner and I’m learning how to use it,” she said. Douglass has also enjoyed some of the interesting factoids she has learned in her wheat weaving research over the years. Once upon a time, straw-woven bonnets were in vogue and young women would gather together and weave wheat all day long for the production of those hats.

Douglass talked about a letter she came across in her research from a minister writing home to England. He was concerned about the young women in his congregation who were putting off marriage because they could make a living weaving wheat to sell to bonnet companies. They had a skilled trade and could provide for themselves.

“It’s not that complicated, but you have to have a love for it,” said Douglass. “If you sit me down and asked me to do quilting or embroidery I would go insane.”

“I could talk to you (about wheat weaving) for six hours,” she said.

Douglass was born in Memphis—her mother is a descendent of members of the Boone party. She grew up in Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas and Texas. After getting out of the Marines, Douglass met her husband, Wayne, when she was working as a convenience store clerk just of the military base in Corpus Christi, Texas. He asked if she wanted to join their Dungeons & Dragons group. That was June 22, 1986—they got married Nov. 14 of the same year. Her husband was still in the Navy at that time.

The rest is history. They’ve been together ever since.

Douglass is a long-time member of the Spring Creek Artisans based out of Salem—their building is located just behind the Ozark National Scenic Riverways Center on Hwy. 19. Douglass said that she would encourage any sort of artist to join the group.

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