Above - a stool of the type more commonly woven in seagrass, this time seated
with natural rush. (Click for bigger pic.)
Above - Big comfy rush-seated rocking chair complete with my mum's old teddy
bear. (Click for bigger pic.)
RUSH SEATING - the background - contd.
Rush seats should really be called 'sedge seats', as the plant used for seating is a member
of the sedge family, Cyperaceae, not the rush family, Juncus. The correct English name is
the Common Bulrush, and the botanical name is Scirpus lacustris. The Great Reed Mace is
often confused with the bulrush.
In the USA the material commonly used for 'rush' seating is the cattail plant. In the UK,
when we weave with rushes we use the flattened stem of the plant, but with cattails it's the
leaf that's used, and it's harder to work and not as hardwearing as true bulrushes.
THE COMMON BULRUSH Scirpus
The common bulrush is ideal for weaving, with its long, smooth, leafless stem,
up to 10ft (3m) long. (The leaves grow from the base of the plant below water.) At
the top of the long stem the flower grows - a cluster of reddish-brown spikelets. (We
often leave some of these on when weaving a seat - have a look underneath!) The
rhizomes, thick, creeping underground stems, may have astringent and diuretic
properties and have been used in herbal medicine.
Above - Pretty spindle-backed armchair seated in natural rush. (Click for bigger
Above - Unusual corner chair with turned spindles painted black and seated in
natural rush. (Click for bigger pic.)
Above - Nice old vernacular chair seated in rush. This chair is in my own kitchen - I
rescued it from our local auction rooms, stripped it down, treated it with Danish oil and gave
it a nice new rush seat. It's now my favourite chair. (Click for bigger pic.)
AREAS WHERE RUSHES
There are far fewer places now where
bulrushes grow. They can still be found in parts of England, and here and there
throughout the northern hemisphere: in Europe from the Black Sea to the Atlantic
as well as the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and the Scandinavian lakes. They also
grow in Australasia.
Although rushes grow in these places however, they are often fairly inaccessible or
in quantities too small to be commercially worth harvesting.
In Britain they are most common in north west Ireland and the English counties
to the east and south of Staffordshire. Most of our rushes come from the upper
reaches of the Thames and East Anglia. Since there's not enough English rush to go
around these days, some is imported from Holland, Spain and Portugal, but it's
generally regarded as not as good as English rush which is longer, stronger and
displays a wider variety of natural colours - greens, browns and golds.
Half the crop is harvested one year and half the next, usually between mid-July and
the end of August. Rushes grow under water so there's no practical mechanical
method for gathering them, and rush-cutters still go out in flat-bottomed boats or
wearing long waders, using sharp blades fixed to poles to cut the stems. Next the
rushes are laid out on the bank to drain before being taken for storage to a dry, airy
place out of the sunlight; they must be turned frequently to avoid mildew.
It takes 3 weeks for the rushes to dry out completely, after which they're
into bundles and stacked. These bundles are between 6-8 feet tall (1.8-2.4m) and
about 38" (96mm) around the base. They're known as 'bolts' of rush, though
nowadays they're usually sold in bundles of 2 kilos - enough to seat 2 average