Learn the nearly lost American art of broom-making.
February / March 2018
By Brett McLeod
Photo by Bob Cerelli
Sweeping with a handmade broom can connect you with the long history of brooms made out of natural materials, from improvised brooms crafted from broken branches to rural artworks featuring decorative stitches.
I’ve been making brooms for several years, and one of the most common questions I hear while demonstrating my craft is, “What plant material is used for the bristles?” The answer is broom corn (Sorghum bicolor, also called Sorghum vulgare), which is a variant of the sorghum grown for sorghum molasses. Broom corn is an annual and looks like sweet corn from a distance. Upon close examination, however, you’ll notice there are no cobs along the stalk — just a large tassel on top with a swollen knuckle at the intersection with the stalk. That tassel is what you’ll need for making brooms. You can also use other natural materials, but in this article I’ll focus on how to make a traditional corn hearth broom.
If you have a green thumb, growing your own broom corn can be part of your broom-making journey (see “All About Growing Sorghum,” below). If not, consider ordering it from a supplier, such as Caddy Supply Company. You should be able to find the other materials and tools at local craft and hardware stores.
• 2 to 3 pounds of broom corn (about 45 heads)
• Nylon cord, No. 18 or larger
• 20-pound waxed hemp string
• Wooden handle
• Tensioning apparatus
• Large needle
• Sewing clamp
Photo by John Holzwart
To make a hearth broom, you’ll need about 28 heads of broom corn for the inside and 17 heads for the outside, with the seeds removed. Measure each head with a cubit — the distance from your elbow to the tip of your longest finger. Put the corn’s “knuckle” (the point between the tassel and the stalk) at your elbow, with the tassel pointing toward your fingers. If the bristles are past the tips of your fingers, it’s a keeper. If the material is too short, you can use it for a whisk broom later. Cut off most of the stalk on the heads for the inner layers, leaving a few inches, and trim the stalks for the outer layer to six inches. Split the stalks on the pieces for the outer layer, removing half the material. Straight, unblemished material looks best on the outer layer of the finished broom. Next, submerge the cut stalks in a bucket of hot water for at least 15 minutes.
Examples of cut bristles: inner at top, and outer at bottom. Photo by John Holzwart
While the broom corn is soaking, you can prepare the handle. You can order commercial dowel handles from a supplier, but I prefer to go the rustic route and use a stick with the bark left on. After I collect my handles, I cut them to length — 18 inches for a hearth broom — and then cure them for at least six months. If any shrinkage, cracking, or peeling occurs during the curing period, reject those sticks. After a stick has cured and seems structurally sound, it’ll be ready to prepare for a broom. Sharpen one end with a hatchet or a knife, and drill a hole just above the taper you created; this will be for anchoring the string you’ll use to attach the broom corn.
I recommend nylon cord for tying brooms because it’s sturdy enough for the job and comes in attractive colors. You can also use mason’s line, although finding appealing colors may be challenging. Outfitting and camping stores often carry nylon cord for anchoring duck decoys, and local craft stores will have macramé cord, which also works well. Before you begin tying your broom, you’ll need to wrap your cord around whatever apparatus you plan to use to create tension while tying the broom. I make and use something I call a “foot spinner,” which is a horizontal bar with “feet” attached to hold the string off the ground. You can easily construct your own foot spinner with a few pieces of scrap wood and some deck screws. Or, you can use a simple stick, but if you do so, the string for your broom will rub on the ground. Always pay attention to posture while making a broom, and let some slack out from the spinner regularly. It’s really easy to forget to let slack out, and before you know it, you’ll be slouched over, working at your feet!
You’ll be building up the center of the broom one head at a time, using the soaked pieces you prepared earlier. Pass your cord through the hole you drilled in the handle and tie it securely — you’ll have to tug pretty hard to anchor the broom corn. Place one head so the cord passes just to the bristle side of the knuckle. Secure it with a tug on the cord, and then add the next head, working around the handle. When you complete the first layer, build a second layer right on top of it, remembering to keep tension on the cord so the center of your broom is firm. Don’t worry if you have pieces left over! It’s better to have too much broom material than not enough.
Next, tie the outside layer. First, trim the stalks from the previous two layers, tapering the material toward the handle. Be careful not to cut the cord.
Trim the inner layers at an angle tapering toward the handle, being careful not to cut the cord anchoring them. Photo by John Holzwart
Spiral the cord up to the handle, and begin adding the outer layer of broom corn. Place the pith side of the split outer-layer stalks against the inner layers, so the smooth outer surface faces you. Just like the other layers, place the heads one at a time, and always be sure to keep a lot of tension on the cord as you add them. The string should compress the material.
Keep tension on he cord as you add each new head of broom corn, and snug them up to each other. Photo by John Holzwart
When the outer layer of broom corn has been placed all the way around the broom, wind the cord around the broom at least eight times, making a wide band over the stalks of corn. That nice, thick band of cord should be like a Victorian corset, squeezing the material onto the handle.
Wind a tight band of cord just below the knuckles of the ouermost layer of corn before you add the decorative plaiting. Photo by John Holzwart
The next step is the optional decorative plaiting of the stalks, which I think makes the broom much more attractive. You can omit this step by spiraling the cord up the stalks and making a band at the top just like the band you made at the base. If, like most of my students, you’d rather plait the stalks, first count your stalks to make sure there’s an odd number. If you have an even number, simply split the thickest stalk in half with a knife or thumbnail to create an extra stalk. Once you have an odd number of stalks, wind the cord alternately over and under each one, spiraling up the stalks as you go. Make another thick band of cord at the top of the stalks, leaving about 1/2 inch of stalk free above the cord. You’ll need to anchor the end of the working cord in this band, so after two wraps, cut another short piece of cord and lay a loop over your working cord.
The turquoise cord shown here is a tool; use it to pull the tail end of the main cord under the last few wraps to anchor it. Photo by John Holzwart
Finish winding, and anchor the cord with your thumb. Cut the cord a few inches past your thumb, pass the end through the loop you added, and use the free ends of the loop (now dangling below the band) to pull the end of your working cord down, under the existing wraps. This is often called a “blind knot,” and is also how you can whip the end of a rope to keep it from fraying.
Speaking of fraying, you’ll now have a frayed cord hanging from your broom. Cut the tail to approximately 1/8 inch long and singe it with a lighter. The broom will look like it’s having a bad hair day! At this point, you’ll need the waxed hemp cord, which comes in a variety of colors — the wax will help the cord hold your broom in shape.
Arrange the bristles in the sewing clamp and tighten it down.
Clamp the ends of the bristles in a neat, flat layer with your sewing clamp before you begin stitching. Photo by John Holzwart
This will keep the bristles in place while you sew them. I measure my string by holding the spool at my waist and making three pulls out from my bellybutton. Cut the string, fold it in half, and then wrap it around the broom once, pulling the two ends through the loop to form a lark’s head knot around the entire broom, about seven inches from the bottom band of cord.
Make a large lark's head knot around the entire broom to begin stitiching. It should be just snug enough to stay in place as you work. Photo by John Holzwart
The knot should be snug enough to stay put, but not so tight that it deforms the broom — you’ll want the bristles to stay nice and flat as you stitch.
Next, thread your needle with both tails of the string. I use an 8-inch needle a blacksmith friend made for me to stitch my brooms, but you could use a packing needle. To anchor the lark’s head knot, make your first stitch where the strings come together at the side of the broom. Then, proceed with a lock stitch. There are plenty of options, but the stitch I use has the tails of the string passing together over and under the loop created by the lark’s head knot. Insert the needle below the horizontal string on the front of the broom, angled to emerge above the horizontal string on the back. Pull the string through, and repeat from the back to complete one stitch. Then, angle the needle to pass below the horizontal string on the front and emerge above the horizontal string on the back, slightly further down the face of the broom. Repeat the under-over stitch from back to front to complete the second stitch, and continue down the face of the broom. Be consistent as you stitch because changing the order of the steps or the spacing of the stitches will look sloppy.
Pass the needle back across the width of the broom after you finish your first row of stitching, to anchor the tails before cutting the cord. Photo by John Holzwart
To complete a row of stitching, run your needle all the way through the broom the long way. Cut your strings flush and start a new row. I usually stitch my brooms three times, spacing the rows two fingers’ width apart, or about an inch and a half.
To finish, cut the bottom of the broom flat, and drill a hole at the top of the handle. Thread a leather strip or a piece of jute cord through the hole, and hang the new broom up so you can enjoy its beauty when it’s not in use. This will also extend the broom’s life; if the broom rests on its bristles, they’ll bend and eventually break. The better you care for your broom, the longer it will last. Happy sweeping!
Photo by Getty Images/Bronwyn8
One of the most versatile members of the grass family, sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) can be grown for grain, crafting, and processing into sorghum syrup. Appropriate sorghum cultivars must be chosen for each use, but all types are as easy to grow as corn.
Sorghum grows best where summers are quite warm, with daytime temperatures regularly topping 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Sandy soils in warm climates are especially good for growing sorghum because it withstands drought and flooding better than corn does.
Broom corn is a type of sorghum that holds its seeds on sturdy straws, perfect for trimming into brooms. The ornamental tops can also be used in dried arrangements. Broom corn cultivars vary in the color of the seeds, which may be black, red, orange, or white. The seeds are eagerly eaten by chickens and other animals, and are most palatable when cracked.
Planting. There’s no rush to plant sorghum, which needs warm soil to germinate and grow. Even in warm climates, sorghum is customarily planted in late May or early June.
Prepare soil much as you would for corn, and be sure to mix a balanced organic fertilizer into the bed or row before planting. Unlike corn, sorghum is self-fertile, so a large plot isn’t needed for pollination purposes. Sow seeds 1/2 inch deep and 4 inches apart, and thin to 8 inches apart when the seedlings are 4 inches tall.
Growing. Keep weeds under control until developing sorghum plants are big enough to dominate their space. Six weeks after planting, drench sorghum with an organic, high-nitrogen liquid fertilizer to invigorate new growth. Many grain sorghum cultivars grow to only 5 feet tall, but sweet sorghum and broom corn plants can top 8 feet.
Harvesting and Storage. Like corn, grains of sorghum go through an immature “milk” stage, when a pierced kernel will bleed a milk-like juice. Sweet sorghum is harvested about two weeks after the milk stage; grain sorghum and broom corn are harvested later, after the seeds are fully mature, with hard glossy seed coats.
When the seeds of broom corn are hard and the plants begin to fail, cut stalks as long as you want them for decorating or crafting purposes. Allow the stalks to dry in small bunches.
Propagating. In summer, select vigorous plants for seed production, and make sure they receive adequate food and water throughout the season. In fall, during a period of dry weather, select the largest seeds produced by these plants and save them for replanting.
— Barbara Pleasant
Broom Corn and Supplies
Caddy Supply Company
“Little John” Holzwart is the proprietor of Plant Based Services LLC. He teaches broom-making around the United States. View his work and schedule at Brooms by Little John. All broom building photos courtesy John Holzwart.
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