But cattail deserves a renewal – there is not a greener, more environmentally conscious option for chair seats. This may sound like a bold claim, but consider the alternatives: Woven hickory, ash splints, and solid wood all require a tree to be chopped down, and in the case of a pine seat for a Windsor chair, it’s quite a large tree. Manufactured materials like Danish cord or Shaker tape require factories, infrastructure, and mail-order catalogs. On the other hand, cattails grow in that muddy ditch just up the road, and whatever you cut this year (if done responsibly) will come back again next year. In fact, they tend to spread aggressively and take over wetland areas, so keeping after them is probably a good thing for local biodiversity. Seats woven of this material are reasonably long-lasting, often enduring many decades. I’ve personally seen examples that are still going strong after well over a century, and there are even some preserved chairs with original cattail seats dating to the Middle Ages. (You’re not allowed to sit in these, though.)
Artisans who specialized in weaving rush seats were often called “bottomers,” and at the end of the 16th century, William Shakespeare introduced us to a character who may have had some knowledge of this trade. As one of the “rude mechanicals” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Nick Bottom, along with a handful of other tradesmen whose last names were drawn from their day jobs, get together to put on a play. While Bottom the Weaver likely worked in textiles, he may have dabbled in rush seat weaving as well.
I learned to work with cattail rush some time ago from master weaver Bernard Zike, who has been practicing the craft in southern Maine for more than 30 years through his business, Able to Cane. Bernard is expert with many types of seat material, including rush, cane, and wicker. Having restored a number of chairs utilizing pre-twisted paper rush, I feel honored to have learned the foundational skills of this ancient art from such an accomplished craftsman.
–Michael Updegraff, excerpt from “The Rhythm of Weaving Cattail Rush Seats,” in Issue Ten