THE fishing bonnets of Staithes have, for generations, been as synonymous with the artists’ haven as its distinctive rocky harbour and the famous coble boats.

Today, the tradition would have died out but for the skill of its sole surviving bonnet-maker, Ann Lawson.

While the days of village women wearing them as part of their everyday attire are long gone, the bonnets are popular with doting mums and grandmas as sun hats and bonnets for babies, said 72-year-old Ann, who runs Victoria House, a gift shop in the heart of the quaint beauty spot.

Ann spent her childhood in Staithes during the Second World War. The family moved to the village after their home in Middlesbrough’s South Bank was bombed and her father was captured by the Japanese.

She and her husband and their four children moved to live permanently in Staithes 42 years ago.

Ann was encouraged by one of the older bonnet makers to try her hand at the historic art – “and I’ve been making them ever since,” she said.

“Years ago, the bonnet was an essential part of the fisher wives’ and lasses’ working dress, together with their long skirts, hessian or cotton aprons and large woollen shawls to keep them warm,” said Ann, who sells her bonnets under the name of Ann’s Maid.

“Fisher women, like their menfolk, had to work hard – very hard. Apart from their normal domestic chores, they had to go collecting mussels off the scars, carrying them back home in heavy baskets balanced on their heads. Once there, they had then 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 on to a flat wicker basket, which the women carried on their heads – and the bonnets helped protect them.

The bonnet takes a full yard of cotton fabric, a yard of cotton tape, a piece of wadding, and a decorative box.

They featured strongly in the paintings by the famous Staithes Group of artists, headed by Dame Laura Knight, and in the photographs of the legendary Frank Meadow Sutcliffe.

Black bonnets were worn by widows in mourning, but Ann’s bonnets are colourful, many with floral designs.

With just three full-time fishermen left in Staithes, the demand for bonnets from the fisher wives, has long since past. But Ann is determined to keep alive one of the oldest and quaintest traditions in the centuries-old Yorkshire coast fishing industry.