99% of thatchers will claim to be a traditional craftsman, and some will say they are more traditional than most. But what does tradition actually mean?
There is no doubt that the vast majority of thatching has to be traditional, as the method of applying the material to the roof has not changed a lot in a hundred years. This can be proven by seeing various layers of thatch when stripping it off a roof. For example, if an extension was going on a roof, you would have to strip off a triangle right back to the original timbers, for the new frame to attach to. It is not uncommon to take 6 layers off a straw roof! The bottom layer could easily be 150 years old, and on each layer you can see how the thatcher worked.
However, there are slight changes from those days that can be applied now, which is where evolution comes in.
Up until the middle of the last century, a thatched house was a poor man’s house. Each village would have its own thatcher who would use whatever material was locally grown. However, due to the house owner not having much money, and the amount of thatched properties and thatchers around, the thatch would not last very long or look anything special. No wire netting was used, so there was nothing to stop wildlife being attracted to the roof.
Nowadays, a thatched cottage is a very desirable home, and that comes at a price. You would not be happy if you have just paid out thousands of pounds to see mice/rats/squirrals in your straw roof every morning with nothing to try and deter them. You would also want your roof looking nice so you could be proud to come home to what some people regard as a work of art. Sometimes, when I thatch a celtic roundhouse, or saxon hut, it has a more shaggy, uneven look to it, with the eaves all over the place, but you wouldn’t like that look on your home. Evolution has helped give the thatched cottage a chocolate box look that most people love.
Is evolution better though? Well, in some cases, yes. Take fixing the material to the rafters as an example. If you want to thatch the traditional way, you would stitch the material to the rafters with tarred cord. The master would thread the cord through the thatch with the help of a needle and the apprentice would be inside to take it and thread it back. With new building regulations on fire protection this would be impossible on a new build today. This evolved to the thatcer using a hazel sway over the material and using dutch crooks, also known as spikes, hammered into the rafters clamping the hazel down. The problem with this is, over time, the hazel could break, causing the thatch to slip. Today, a steel sway is used instead of the hazel rod. This will not break like hazel has been known to, and can get the thatch a lot tighter than stitching.
I could be pedantic and go on about only using heavy wooden pole ladders instead of the aluminium trade ladders we have today, or going to work on a horse and cart instead of you car.
On the other hand, a lot of what the thatcher does relies upon tradition. The preparation of straw has not changed one bit (discounting the fairly recently introduced wheat reed). The finished look of the coat work has not changed. Tapping reed into place with a leggett is the same as it always has been. The core work of what we do is, undoubtably, traditional. No machine can replicate a thatched look.
The truth is, no thatcher is completely traditional. Evolution has helped the thatched cottage become longer lasting, and better looking, than ever before. However, without the knowledge of our forefathers we wouldn’t have a clue where to start.
Thatching – the traditional craft that has evolved just enough.