A Ready Material

It’s easy to imagine the logical progression of the use of these plants in furniture. Centuries ago in Europe and Asia, homes commonly possessed earthen or dirt floors, and rushes were often gathered and spread in living spaces as a means of refreshing the room and insulating against cold. Indigenous peoples in North America often wove cattail mats as places to sit and sleep. Rush basketry and other crafts were common in those days, and it doesn’t take a leap to imagine how readily and naturally the fiber was incorporated into the frames of simple chairs when they came along.

The use of this material throughout history highlights a common human trait that has only recently faded away: making the most of what was at hand. One may wonder why this material was so universally employed in furniture when each seat took such a long time to weave – wouldn’t a plank seat take less time and last longer? Maybe. But the absolute values assigned to tasks and materials change when they become the purview of just a single household, gathering with no aim beyond subsistence. Time wasn’t money until industrialization and specialization turned labor into a commodity. Weighing the effort involved to cut, split, season, and shape a solid chair seat out of valuable wood with crude tools, compared to pulling an armload of weaving material out of the pile of annually harvested rush and tying a seat out of it, was a different way of thinking than we’re accustomed to. When the land provided a ready material, it was put to use.

–Michael Updegraff, excerpt from “The Rhythm of Weaving Cattail Rush Seats,” in Issue Ten


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