Make a Corn Dolly

In traditional European pagan culture, it was believed that the spirit of the corn lived in the crop and would be made homeless by the harvest. Of course, as we know from our post on corn rituals, this would not have been “corn” as we know it today because it was a New World crop and wasn’t grown in Europe at this time. The term “corn” here actually refers to “grain,” such as wheat.

In any event, it was customary to take the last sheaf of the harvest and fashion it into a decorative dolly. The spirit of the grain would then spend the winter in this new home until it was time to plant again the next year. The corn dolly was plowed into the first furrow to ensure a good harvest of the new crop. In many places, these dollies have become—and remain—a popular art form. Some are very intricate, and bear little resemblance to a human figure.

Meanwhile, back in the New World, many Native American groups made dolls from natural materials, and one material that was commonly used was corn husks.

So I guess it’s fair to say that this corn dolly represents a synthesis of several traditions. Corn dollies can be simple (as in my example) or much more elaborate. I used the husks from the corn on the cob that we had for dinner last night, but you can buy bags of dried corn husks at most supermarkets (they’re sold for making tamales). If you use the dried husks, soak them for a few hours in warm water to make them more pliable before beginning.

Making a basic corn dolly is an easy and fun project for both kids and adults, especially at this time of year. Here’s how to do it:

 Materials:

Corn husks

Large bowl filled with warm water (if using dried husks, as mentioned above)

String (I used dental floss)

Rubber bands (optional)

Scissors

Instructions

1.      Assemble several (5 to 7) large corn husks and tie them about 1 and ½ inches from one end (this will be the dolly’s head).

2.      Beginning at the end that you didn’t tie, gently pull each length of husk back over the head.

3.      Shape the head to make it as smooth and round as possible, and wrap a rubber band several times around what will be the neck. (You can also tie a string around the neck, if you prefer, but I found the rubber band to be easier.)

4.      Take one long husk and tear it into three, roughly equal strips. Tie a string about half an inch from one end. Braid the strips and tie off at the other end, again leaving (or trimming) to have about one half inch at that end, too. “Fringe” the ends to make hands.

5.      Position the arms under a couple of lengths of husk at your doll’s back, just below the neck.

6.      Wrap a rubber band beneath the arms to hold them in place and create a waist. Again, you can tie this with a string, if you prefer.

7.      To fill out the skirt, take more husks (the widest ones you can find) and attach them to the doll’s waist (this is where the rubber band really comes in handy as you can just tuck them under it,)

8.      Tear thin strips of husk and wrap them around your doll’s neck, waist, wrists, or anywhere the strings or rubber bands are showing. You may also want to tie strips of husk across your doll’s chest in a criss-crossed fashion to create a bodice.

9.      There are a number of ways to finish the doll’s head. You can use dried corn silk to create hair or fashion some sort of hat or head covering. What I did was to take a large, square piece of corn husk and fold it to make a triangle. Then I tore off a long, thin strip of husk and put it inside the fold and extending out both sides. I used this to tie the scarf under my doll’s chin. You can also choose to add facial features if you like.

10.  Prop your dolly up on something (I used an empty wine bottle) to dry.

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Comments

  1. Rae Payne says:

    Oh, love this corn dolly. I especially love the pictures showing it as still green. I know it will dry eventually, but something about the green makes if feel even MORE alive!

    Kitty Williams Reply:

    Thanks Rae! Yep, those husks were still on ears of corn 24 hours earlier–so they were really nice to work with (and they smelled good too!)

Trackbacks

  1. [...] few month ago, we looked at the tradition of corn dollies, which were believed to keep the spirits of the grain alive through the long winters, and to help [...]