SWEPT AWAY BY BROOM MAKING
By Lois Hoffman
Sometimes, even though it is easier and cheaper to buy something, the satisfaction of making something yourself trumps ease. One such instance is making your own brooms. No farmhouse, or any place for that matter, would be the same without a broom hanging in the kitchen.
How many times do you really think about that house staple that sets or hangs in the corner but is used probably every day…probably never and then subtract a bit more! So it is with brooms and other common household items. Given the puritanical legacy of this country and our early ancestors’ obsession with cleanliness, it is not surprising that America’s contribution to world handicrafts would be an enhanced means to collect dust from corners!
Many of our modern broom designs descend from an early broom designer, Levi Dickinson, a Massachusetts farmer who crafted a broom for his wife using tassels from a variety of sorghum. It was such a hit that that sorghum variety is now referred to as broom corn. Stalks grow like sweet corn and looks the same except it has no cobs, it only has the tassels on top which are used for the brooms.
These brooms were mainly round in shape until after the Shakers adopted the corn broom in the 1800’s. They clamped the wayward bristles in a vise and stitched them flat.
Even though most household brooms of today are mass-produced in Mexico, broom making is not a lost art. A small number of people in North America, many in Appalachia, still make their own and hold broom making classes. Brea College in Kentucky has the longest running broom workshop.
Chris Robbins is the current workshop supervisor. At the age of 14, he pestered a broom maker at a craft show to give him two hours of instruction. Now, at 32, he still enjoys making something with his hands that others want to buy. By instructing others in this craft, he is making sure that the legacy continues.Students spend two hours a day in the class. Robbins likes how a repetitive motion syncs one’s mind and body in a liberating way. Even though he knows that all of his students will go on to other careers, for now they are learning to make things with their hands and carrying on a nearly extinct regional tradition. They are also learning that you don’t always have to buy everything that you use.
Materials can usually be gathered from a garden or woods. There are three main kinds of homemade brooms, those made from straw, birch branches or broom corn. Although the general procedure is the same for all three varieties, there are slight differences.
For a straw broom, all that is needed is straw, a stick for the handle, twine or wire for binding and a knife and scissors. Handles can be ordered if you are going for a commercial look, but if rustic is your décor, branches work just fine. All you need to do is strip the bark and let them dry for a few months so they don’t crack or split.
Next, clean the straw by shaking it to get rid of debris. Do not add any water or try to wash it for fear of it molding. Then, divide the straw into 10 separate bundles. Gather one bundle together, making sure that the ends on one side are even. Hold it all together and wrap it with twine, the tighter the better. Do the other nine bundles the same.
Next, tie all the bundles together, using either wire or twine. If you want a flat broom for floors, place the bundles side by side. If you want a round broom like a whisk broom, connect the bundles in a circular design.
Sharpen the end of the handle so that you can push it in the center of the straw bundles. Secure it tightly because brooms tend to lose their “heads” when used vigorously. This is where the term “flying off the handle” originated.
Birch brooms are fashioned slightly differently, and they have a more botanical-inspired look. You will need the same materials, except switch out the straw for birch branches. Soak the branches overnight so they are pliable. Place your handle on a bench or flat surface, surrounding it with branches on both sides, making sure that the bottoms of the branches are pointed toward the top of the handle. Tie the branches securely around the broom handle.
After the branches are secured, fold them down over the twine so that the tops are pointed downward. Secure them with additional twine, wrapping the branches either once or twice near the top of the handle. Let the brooms dry a few days before using.
For corn brooms, you will need broom corn tassels in place of the birch branches. Shake the dust and debris out of the tassels and then divide them into 10 separate bunches, layering the stalks until they are about an inch thick in each bundle. Use longer stalks for a large, full-length broom and reserve the smaller ones for whisk brooms or small hearth brooms. Secure each bundle with twine.
Next, tie together two gathered bunches of broom corn using either wire or twine and then add the next bundle, placing it flat against the first two bundles for a broom to use on floors. Use a circular design for smaller ones to be used as whisk brooms or on a hearth. Continue attaching bundles one by one until all broom corn is attached securely.
Again, sharpen your handle, secure it in the bundle and then cut the ends of the broom so that the base is even and as smooth as possible.
With all your finished brooms, you can drill a hole in the top of the handles so they can be hung in a convenient place. Cast iron hooks fashioned by blacksmiths round out the rustic look of your handmade broom. I remember my grandmother having a broom closet so everything was tidy and out of sight. This would be a disgrace for a handmade broom; why miss a chance to add charm to your kitchen with something you made!
On the light side, there is folklore that is associated with brooms and sweeping. It is said that you will sweep out the money made during the coming year if you sweep on New Year’s Day. Sweep the dirt out the back door rather than the front or you will sweep away your best friend. Always pick up a broom laying on the ground for good luck. It is also unlucky to sweep on Monday or Friday. Now, I am sure that if I dig a little further, I can find that it is also unlucky to sweep on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday too!
There is just something heartwarming about knowing that you made something with your own hands from materials from nature. Broom making offers us a way to get back to basics and is a project that anyone can do. Besides the few basic materials, the only other thing needed is a little bit of patience.
Photo by Getty Images.
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