Rush History

To understand the history of Rush seating in the UK, you must first look at the history of the chair: The history of furniture is a combination of function and fashion.

Sources – Surviving pieces, wills, household inventories and pictorial.
Seating in Britain post Roman up to the Middle Ages was on stools and benches.
The stools were of Jointed construction; made secure using Willow pegs to lock the joints together. Three legged stools are the earliest and the stool was made by a Joiner and any decoration carved by a Carpenter. This means that each is as individual as the people who made it – no two are alike without mechanised techniques of reproduction.
A Chair was a sign of status and a wealthy household might only have one chair. These were solid, heavy, oak and incorporated a back and arms onto a storage chest, giving a solid base – sometimes known as “Casket furniture”.
Late C.15th chairs with arms had legs like a stool with heavy stretchers close to the ground (not a sign that the chairs’ legs have been cut down!).
The development of the “Back stool” was an upward projection of the back legs with a flat board between them.
Comfort in C.16th and C.17th was provided by cushions. Upholstered furniture begins from late Elizabethan (1558 – 1603). Furniture, especially a chair, might be preserved within a family for generations.
Historical chronology of Rush Seating
Rush working is a very old craft, related species grow widely in the Old World and New, and examples of rush seating have been found in the tombs of Egypt. Weaving rushes & sedges into Hats, Mats and Baskets is an allied craft, with a very long history.
In England loose sedges and rushes were an important flooring material; historical records show their use since Saxon times and the ‘Spring Cleaning’ rituals involved in the annual changing of the floor rushes continued in the North West of England as “Rush Bearing Festivals” until the late C.19th .
Medieval - Rush seating has been practiced in England since the 14th Century. There are records of rush seated chairs in household accounts inform the late 1500’s.
C.17th and C.18th - Common on vernacular furniture with the coil sizes varying both according to skill of the Rush Matter (Buckinghamshire) or Rush Bottomer (Lincolnshire and the North), and the locally available material. The work appears to have be done by itinerant men, or in rush harvesting areas, home workers.
1750’s into The Regency period – Fashionable furniture with very fine coils (7-10/square inch) e.g. side chairs such as Hepplewhite’s splat back designs. These seats were presumably done in organised chair-making workshops.
C.18th – C.19th – Mostly worked on ‘Country furniture’ rather than fashionable, seats were often painted along with the rest of the wood to aid preservation.
Work was now also concentrated in or around chair-making centres: High Wycombe, Bucks, or the towns of the North West of England, which was a great centre at this time with huge quantities of rush imported from Holland through Liverpool.
C.19th – The green woodworking techniques originally used in chair construction were gradually replaced by the use of dry, pre-sawn timbers during this period of increased mechanisation; both water and later, steam powered. Look for narrow parallel grooves on the legs of furniture that are the mark of the saw.
End C.19th century - "Arts and Crafts" designers admired the simple elegance of the ladder and spindleback designs. A notable collaboration was that between traditional Herefordshire chair maker Philip Clissold and designer Ernest Gimpson. These designers produced refined ‘country-style’ furniture with fine rushwork, often complicated by the insertion of armrests into the seat frame.
C.20th - The popularity of rush as a seating material declined during the first half of this century. Many of the rush workers and harvesters were men who never returned from the two great wars.
Bernard D Cotton (author of The English Regional Chair 1990) describes the work as skilled but the conditions as rather grim – dark, damp and smelly, and consequently unhealthy. Cotton’s opinion is that the work was physically demanding and this is why (unlike chair caning) it was practised by men.

Chair materials.
Most of the surviving examples of rush seating are on chairs from the Hereford/Worcester border, North West and Lincolnshire. They were made by specialist craftsmen according to regional and familial traditions and designs, using coppice woodworking techniques of turning and joinery. The woods used are varied, but rarely include Oak: Elm and Ash Cherry, Sycamore, Alder, Beech, Yew & Birch are recorded. More than one wood in a chair is common; turned pieces differ from the back & legs.
A chair to be re-seated now often needs the joints glued. Greenwood turned with circular cross-sections dries to an oval shape forming a tight mortise joint, e.g. between legs and rails. Over the 200 years or so since their construction however, many now have loose joints as a result of long drying and centrally heated houses instead of ‘breathing’ stone or cob walls and earth floors! Late C.18th use of dry timber meant that the green-turned parts were seasoned and then assembled using glue.
Barrel-making techniques were employed in the steaming and bending of the slats for ladderbacks. The side-rails that are covered by the rush were shaped with a drawknife, on a shaving horse, rather than turned.

The Material: Scirpus Laucustris & Maritimus
Scirpus Laucustris Freshwater rush grows along river margins and reaches between 4 & 9 feet in height. Like any other plant, it is affected by what Viticulturists call “Terroir”; that is, the locally available minerals in the soil, climate and water. An area with limey (chalk) soils grows the tallest rush. ‘Terroir’ produces rush suitable for different uses in different parts of the country. Much of this knowledge is now lost as few people harvest in the traditional manner or areas.
Rushes are harvested in late, June/ early July by wading into the water, or leaning in from a punt/canoe/dingy. It is cut as low as possible in arm-fulls with a sickle, fagging hook (for cutting fagots) or sharp knife. On land the harvest is spread out to dry much like cut hay, and must be turned frequently to avoid damp settling upon it. The ‘Bolts’ are traditionally formed by amassing a bundle around which a 42” strip can be tied at a height 1” from the base of the bundle. After drying, this bolt will have lost 10” in diameter. The bright greens and golds of the fresh rush dry to softer greens, duck-egg blues, golds and peach tones. and over time to a malted golden colour.
A bulky crop to store, it is then transferred to a cool, dark, airy space (like a barn) where it will lose more moisture (10% overall).
Slow drying avoids the rush becoming hard and mouldy. Dried properly, it is harder wearing than the softer Saltwater rush.

Scirpus Maritimus Saltwater rush is imported into this country, mainly from the Netherlands where it is grown commercially and also forms an important part of the ecology of sewage-processing reed-beds. Generally this variety is shorter and browner than Freshwater rush, but softer to work with. In time, it ages to hues of golden brown.

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