Pictured left is the common bulrush, Scirpus Lacustris commonly used in the UK and Europe for chair seating. Materials used for this purpose vary from country to country, and the issue can be confused because the generic term, 'rushes' is often used for completely different seating materials! In the US, for example, rush seating is commonly done with the leaves of the Cattail plant, but most American seat weavers refer to their material as 'rush'.
The origins of rush seating are lost in the mists of ancient history. Certainly the use of rushes goes back at least to the 4th millennium BC: there's evidence of rush work from excavations at Ur in southern Iraq. In ancient Egypt, about 3,500 years ago, throne-chairs with seats of plaited reeds or rushes were used.
Interestingly, the basket that the baby Moses was hidden in was not made of rushes but probably of Papyrus antiquorum. Paintings of this incident confuse things even further by showing the great reed mace rather than the true bulrush, Scirpus lacustris.
Evidence of rush seating turns up throughout history. The Vikings almost certainly used it, and in mediaeval Italy simple rush-seated ladderback chairs were commonly used. Strangely, considering that the best rushes grow in England, there's no direct evidence of rush-seating in Britain before the 17th century, though it's quite likely it was used before this.
RUSH CHAIRS IN ART
During the middle ages in the Low Countries and Spain rush seats were used, as can be seen in the painting by Nicolaes Verkuje (1673-1746) The Tea Party.
Various house inventories included rush seats: 1708, Robert Hilliard of Writtle, Essex had '5 chairs rush ones'; 1705, a blacksmith's house had 'an oval gateleg table and 6 rush chairs to set around it'. Sheraton, the great furniture maker, described 'small painted chairs with rush bottoms'.
THE ARTS AND CRAFTS MOVEMENT
After about 1720 rush seats became unfashionable as upholstery gained prominence, but by the middle of the next century William Morris (1834-1896), founder of the Arts & Crafts Movement helped repopularise them. At this time there was a yearning amongst city folk for a more rustic way of life and rush seats seemed to typify this daydream.
HEALTH PROBLEMS AMONGST RUSH SEATERS
Rush seaters were known as 'bottomers' or 'matters' and they often suffered chest problems, known as 'matter's chest' due to inhaling dust & mildew from badly stored rushes. This danger is still amongst us, and it's always safer to strip off old chairs outside - you never know what nasties are lurking inside the weave. We are also prone to other physical side-effects, such as backache, sore fingers and various repetitive strain injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome - it's not a job for the faint-hearted!
SHAKESPEARE'S BOTTOM THE WEAVER
Bottom (A Midsummer Night's Dream) was a 'bottomer' - a rush seater - rather than a loom weaver as is commonly supposed.
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
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.
AREAS WHERE RUSHES GROW
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 tied 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 dining chairs.