Themes: Language

Thatching related words

By John Cousins

I write as a Suffolk thatcher with a background in traditional Suffolk Long Straw and Water Reed as used in East Anglia. I was fortunate enough to train with an acknowledged master in both materials but particularly in Long Straw. He was able to trace fourteen generations in Long Straw, nine of them by name. He taught me the old ways because I was intensely interested in them. Most of the terminology I learned from him and his contemporaries, all now sadly long gone.


Materials and Material Production

Coppice Wood. Thatching is one of the few trades that still looks to woodland for coppice materials, namely nuttery, which is the old name for hazel and in fact still used in conversation. One of the Trusts will no doubt supply a traditional glossary. Coppice products derived for thatching will be in the thatching section below.

Wrought lron. The mild steel fixings called thatching hooks are traditionally forged. However, I discovered from old thatchers that as a fixing system they are comparative newcomers because of cost. For example, a dozen cost five shillings in SW Suffolk in the Twenties and did not cost much more in the Sixties. Thatch had always been tied on, using withies, grass rope, hemp and ultimately tarred sisal. Now we can add poly and wire. Steel fixings are now also stamped and sharpened by grinding rather than forging but in my opinion the forged versions are best. I will include hooks in the thatching section.

Water Reed. There is a Glossary of Marsh Terms in The Reed ("Norfolk Reed") published by the Norfolk Reed Growers'Association and it also includes esoteric terms relating to the product.

Thatching Straw. By this I mean straw produced for use in Long Straw thatching rather than straw produced as Combed Wheat Reed and used in the thatching system of that name. lts use in East Anglia dates only from the Sixties and was/is an import from the West Country, where it is the traditional material. I regard it and the style of work that is properly its own to be alien to East Anglia and so hence do not include it.

Farming. Traditionally, straw thatching has been very closely associated with farming. although that ancient link is now weaker with the changes in agriculture. But since the production of thatching straw can still use the machinery and methods of yesteryear and since we are familiar with them I am going to start there. You might wish to consider the potential for the farming section of your Great Work.


Rafe hook. Sickle.

lsaac and Ash. Scythe.

Snead. Scythe handle.

Hanging a scythe.   The somewhat sensitive fitting of the snead to suit the owner/user.

Cradle. The tined bow fitted to a scythe for mowing wheat. Also known as the horn.

Sail Reaper. Horse or tractor drawn machine that mows the crop and sweeps it off a deck in bunches ready for tying by hand.

Binder. Successor to the sail reaper and short for reaper binder, a machine which both cuts the crop and ties or binds it into shooves.

Shoof (as in foot). Plural shooves. Also shoaf and shove. A sheaf elsewhere.

Shock. Noun and verb qv Tusser 1557, Also used in America. Known as a stook elsewhere in England. Usually six or eight shooves stood up in opposing pairs and adjacent so as to form a tunnel in such a way that the drying wind can pass through and around it but the rain be kept out. By tradition a shock should hear three church bells ie stand for three weeks before it is carted. See also Trave.

Stand Up or Shock Up. To get the shooves off the ground and into shocks.

Trave. Term for Shock used in South Suffolk.

Traving. Term for making shocks in South Suffolk.

Brackly. Straw is brackly when it is brittle. Anglo Saxon brecan - to break.

Pitchfork. Two-tined, long handled fork particularly for pitching shooves onto a load, stack etc.

Stale. Long handle for a pitchfork.

Carting Off. Loading the ready shocks into trailers and carting it off the field.

Shack. Gleanings left on the field after carting.

Stackyard. The open storage area allotted to corn and straw stacks.

Middle tree. The removable upright to which barn doors are sometimes secured.

Goafstead. That part of the barn (usually left of the central thrashing floor, used to store the goaf or unthrashed shooves.

Riding the Goaf. Using a horse or pony to tread down the shooves as they are pitched in.

Cornstack. Where there is more harvest than the barn will accommodate, corn stacks are built in which the shooves are stacked by courses in such a way that maximum content is achieved and rainwater is excluded until the stack can be thatched.

Look out - Jacobites! Warning that there are thistles in a shoof being passed.

Strawstack. A constructed stack of thrashed straw.

Toppings. The top layers in a stack - hence topping up to complete the stack.


Topping up.   Using the final levels of shooves to form a sloping pitch or roof to the stack.  Sometimes called roofing the stack.

Scud. Twisted straw rope used in stack thatching. Might also be called a bonded ledger or bond and elsewhere a band.


Scud-winder. A device for twisting straw rope. A swivel hooks to the belt and a hand crank ending in a hook holds and twists the straw as more straw is added to make the desired length. Also known as a throw-crook and elsewhere as a whimbel or whimmer.

Throw-crook. See scud-winder.

Dolly. A finial or straw figure tied to the stack apex when thatching is complete.

Minifer. Weasel living in a stack base and preying on the mice that live there.

Thrasher. A machine for separating grain, chaff, cavings and straw stems. (Called a Separator in America). Note that it is thrashing and not threshing in Suffolk.

Shuck. Using the hands to rub ripe grain out of the corn head.

Drum. Common name for a thrasher, from the rotating drum inside the machine.

Throsh. Alternative term for thrash.

Avels. Baley awms. From Danish avne - chaff.

Offal. Chaff.

Cavings. Small straw and other residues from thrashing. Also known as colder.

Flag.   The leafy growth on a cereal stem removed in thrashing and forming part of the cavings.

Straw Jack. A non-folding elevator used for conveying loose, thrashed straw from thrasher to stack.

Pitcher. General term for a straw elevator.

Trusser. Machine for tying determined quantities of thrashed straw into bunches or trusses.

??? (Lost in OCR scanning). The bay the other side of the thrashing floor used to store the thrashed straw.

Mowstead. A low partition between the thrashing floor and an adjacent storage bay.

Stick and a Half. A flail.

Bully. The man who stands on the stack or load to receive the shooves from below.

Bully Hole. The temporary small niche or ledge left half way up a stack for the bully to relay the shoof up to the stacker above him. Also used for the recess in the thrasher deck from which the drum is fed.

Chair. Another name for the bully hole.

Clogwheat. Bearded wheat. Probably from its propensity to clog up the thrasher's screens,

Fillis. A soft string used for tying up corn sacks.

Colder. See Cavings.

Jag. Small load of straw.

Hutch. Usually a wooden corn bin.

Knickled. Described cereal crop that had been flattened or laid by wind/rain.

Basecoat. The laye(s) of thatch next to the roof frame,

Topcoat. A coat of new thatch fixed to a basecoat.

Sway. A coppice pole normally hazeltrimmed for use as an internal fixing when thatching new work to the roof frame. lt is now common to use mild steel for water reed but it is still sway.

Sway down. To fix the sway into position.

Thatching hooks. Traditionally forged from iron/mild steel and of variable length are pointed at one end for driving into the rafter and shaped at the other to hold and secure the sway.


Withy or Withe.   Any thin, green and pliant stem, such as osier, bramble etc used in the ancient technique of securing thatch to the roof frame.  Other uses included tying up bundles of brawtches.


Score.   In parts of South Suffolk and probably elsewhere brawtches were tied up in bundles of Six Score ie 120.

Fathom.   Hence a fathom of reed, 6ft being the prescribed length for six bunches of water reed measured round 1ft above the butt ends.  Said to derive from fishermen who worked in the reed beds during the winter months.

Bunch.   An older term for a bundle of water reed etc.  Also the cry from the roof when more material was needed.

Sedge.   Cladium Mariscus, a marsh plant with long, serated leaves and the traditional material for ridging water reed thatch.  Length varies but can reach 6ft.

Sedge Bed.   An area on the reed beds devoted to the cultivation of sedge, usually for cutting on a four year cycle.

Boulder or Bolt.   Used to describe reed mace found in bunches of water reed and said by some to improve thatch quality.

Gladden.   Local term for the wild iris sometimes found in bunches of water reed and said by some to improve thatch quality.

Single Whale.   Water reed cut from one season's growth is said to be single whale.

Double Whale.   When the first year growth of water reed is left uncut, the second year is allowed to grow through it and the whole is cut at the end of the second season, the reed crop is said to be second whale.

Shet knife. Pocket knife that shuts or folds up.


Dolly. Also called a roll, a tied tube of thatching material used in foundation work, notably in building up ridgework.

Palm. Sometimes a pad. Usually of leather, it fits the palm of the hand with holes for the fingers and thumb. Used for pushing brawtches into the thatch.

Tittery. Describes an insecure ladder likely to fall. From the Old Norse titra - to shake.

Doke. A small depression in an otherwise flat thatch surface. Derivation is East Frisian dolke - a small hollow.

Rooving. Noun and verb. The ridge.

Rizzer. Also known as a ledger or long rod, comprises a length of riven hazel 4-6ft long and trimmed for use in surface work at ridge, gable and eave. Elsewhere called a ligger.

Scud. Twisted straw used in internal fixing, sometimes called a bonded or straw ledger.

Cross Rods. Trimmed lengths of riven hazel used to form the lattice work on ornamental ridges.

Flush ridge. A ridge made to finish in the same plane as the rest of the thatch.

Block ridge. A ridge where additional material raises the ridge above the plane of the casework.

Casework. The bulk of the thatch before ridging.

Gadd. A length of hazel pole suitable for riving.

Riving. Splitting along the grain of wood.

Riving hook. A small billhook of variable shape and design intended for riving.

Thatcher's hook. More commonly called a sparhook. a lightweight billhook designed for use in trimming riven coppice wood.

Froe. Also known as a fromard, frower or thrower. A device for splitting thick coppice comprising an edged blade fixed at right angles to a short handle.

Wibbler. A hand held device for stitching wire netting together.

Pins. The flat bladed equivalent of needles but used in water reed thatching.

Leggatt. A handtool of no fixed design or material but used for dressing water reed into position by either pushing or driving sideways. Mostly it comprises a 12-18ins handle fixed to the centre of an oblong section of wood, steel or alloy, the other side being designed to catch the reed surface and move the reed stems. This might be by a sequence of ledges, rings, holes or studs, which latter are frequently flattened horseshoe nails.

Eaves Knife. Traditionally the Long Knife, a purpose made, straight bladed tool for cutting off eaves and gables in Long Straw. A deep blade some 3ft long is fixed to a straight but contoured handle of similar or greater length. Frequently made locally using scythe blades it was said that the long knife sorted out the men from the boys. The same knife was used on farm for trimming down the sides of cornstacks and so making it more difficult for rats to gain access.

Pattern knife. Short handled knife used for trimming ornamental ridgework.

Sheep shears. Of cranked or straight pattern, the common tool for finishing work.

Cut gable. A gable with cut finish.

Rolled gable. A gable where courses are continued round the end and fixed in place by means of surface brawtching, giving a rougher and rounded appearance.

Pinnacle. The pointed apex at the gable end.


Peak.   The pinnacle apex. 

Flue.   An old term for a thatch gable (found in South Suffolk).


Strike. A hand held device used to level the top of a bushel measure and thus remove any surplus. Also used to describe a full bushel regulated in this way

Stack thatching. The technique used to thatch corn and straw stacks, particularly the former.

Stack pegs. Thin coppice poles about 3ft long pointed at the bottom.and notched near the top. They are pushed into the stack and the notches are used to secure and carry strings across the thatch surface as additional protection against strong winds.

Stack spars. Over length brawtches (qv) used instead of stack pegs.

Derby Needle. A curved steel device used for stitching thatch to the stack when it is in the form of made up straw matting.

Thatcher's Spear.   For use when the stack is being thatched, this is a shaft some 3-4ft long fitted with a long and tapering iron point.  It is thrust into the stack to secure yelms awaiting use by either impaling them or acting as a stop.




Thatcher's chrom. Long handled fork with three long tines bent through 90 degrees like a muck fork and used for pulling loose straw off the top of the straw stack.

Shaking fork. Scaled down pitchfork used for shaking out straw and making the straw bed.

Thatcher's Toad or simply Toad. The young helper or apprentice, the name probably deriving from his scattering water over the loose straw and splashing around in the middle of the wet material. He also took ready material up the ladder to the masterman.

Masterman or Master Man.   By tradition the term described an independent tradesman who might also have an apprentice.  The pressure of community opinion usually expected him to be skilled and experienced and certainly concealed basecoats of antiquity are seldom less than competent and sometimes superb.  The term Master Thatcher, however, has no legal basis and there is no restriction on its use by individuals.

Bed. A formation of overlaid damp straw made by progressively shaking out material into an orderly heap and gradually working backwards, the first laid being the front edge from which the straw is then drawn. Length, width and height are optional but a bed can contain half a ton of straw if desired.

Drawing straw. The act of pulling paired handfuls of straw from along the front of the bed and laying them in an overlapping line in readiness for making yelms.

Yelm or Yealm. Noun and verb. A compacted unit of straw, the thatch equivalent of a tile. Derivation Anglo Saxon gelm. See also Gavel.

Gavel. Noun and verb. A bundle of straw prepared for thatching. Derivation Old French gavel. The term in Essex believed to be gabble or gabbel.

Yoke. A device for storing yelms as they are made and then conveying them securely up the ladder to the work site. Consists of two short poles hinged together at one end or a natural Y shape piece of coppice wood, both fitted with a cord at the open end for securing the load. Known elsewhere as a Thatcher's Hod.

Cradle. A device for restraining and holding a number of unused yelms on the roof.

Needles. Forged irons of no particular pattern but about 2ft long and pointed so as to thrust into the thatch and control material. Some are graduated to indicate the length of hook (qv) required.

Long needle. Between 3-4ft long and is used where multiple coats of thatch are present. It probably derives from use in hay trussing on the farm.

Stitcher. Any needle which has its pointed end expanded to receive a hole through which cord can be threaded and thence conveyed through the thatch.

Sewing needle. Giant iron version of a domestic needle about 10ins long and employed in the now rare technique of sewing thatch to the underlying batten.

Spud. The traditional thatcher's mallet but now rare.

Tarcord. Cord treated with a mixture of Stockholm Tar and White Spirit.

Thatcher's knot. The truss knot used in hay trussing.

Brawtch. Riven hazel between 24-30ins long pointed at each end with three strikes and twisted in the middle to form a staple. Driven into the thatch it is the common thatch fixing, Also known as brotch or broach. Thought to derive from Old French brocher. Brawtches are sometimes made from willow where hazel is not available. See also Spar.

Springles. To some Sprinkles. The name for a brawtch in South Suffolk.

Spar. Another name for brawtch. There were apparently instances of its use in East Anglia but the name is more commonly associated with areas to the West.

Bottle. A modified yelm used in establishing the thickness and overhang of new eaves and gables.

Brow. The course thatched to complete the eave and begin the roof pitch.

Wadd. Section of folded yelm used to bring up a level where internal space is tight.

Stulch. To some stetch. A vertical strip of new topcoat thatch. Taken from the term for stetch or strip ploughing before the reversible plough came in.

Course. A horizontal level of thatch like a course of tiles.