Heading up a living tradition of coastal life

THE tradition of making and wearing fisherwomen's bonnets in Staithes is kept alive by the sole surviving bonnet-maker, Ann Lawson.

Ann and her husband and their four children moved to the fishing village 42 years ago and she was encouraged by one of the older bonnet makers to try her hand.

"Years ago the bonnet was essential," said Ann who sells her bonnets under the name of Ann's Maid.

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"It was part of the fisherwives and lasses' working dress, together with their long skirts, hessian or cotton aprons, and large woollen shawls to keep them warm.

"Because of the weight the fisherwomen carried on their heads, the bonnets had a double crown. Apart from their normal domestic chores, the women had to go collecting mussels off the scaurs, carrying them back home in heavy baskets balanced on their heads.

"Then they had to skein them – removing the flesh from out of the shells – and use the flesh to bait the hooks on a long line."

The heavy baited lines were coiled into a flat wicker basket which the women once again carried on their heads back to the shore.

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The protective bonnets take a full yard of cotton material, a yard of cotton tape, wadding, and a decorative box.

They feature in the paintings by the Staithes Group of artists which included Dame Laura Knight and in the photographs of Frank Meadow Sutcliffe.

Black bonnets were worn by widows in mourning.

Ann's bonnets are a colourful array, many with floral designs.

White is also popular, especially for those made for babies and toddlers with broderie anglaise. Today's customers are usually fascinated holidaymakers, says 72-year-old Ann, who runs Victoria House gift shop and spent her wartime childhood in Staithes.Staithes today has three full- time fishermen where once it had a thriving fleet of traditional cobles.

The demand for bonnets from the fisherwives may be long gone, but Ann is determined to keep alive one of the oldest and quaintest traditions of the Yorkshire coast fishing industry.