Rush Matters x British Standard

“Do not be scared of the rush!” is Felicity Iron’s emphatic instruction to the room of novices who have gathered in the British Standard showroom for a preview of the rush weaving workshop she is hosting during London Craft Week. A bolt of the raw material is heaped on the floor and there are examples of Felicity’s craft – a honey-coloured mat, small baskets and placemats – scattered throughout the space. The grassy smell from the dried rush, combined with the heap of pastries and fresh coffee in the corner, fills the showroom.

Felicity is one of Britain’s last rush weavers. Her company, Rush Matters, is based in a 14th-century barn in Bedfordshire where she weaves tableware, basketry, accessories, matting and furniture for customers across the world. Her rush matting appears in some of Britain’s most important historic homes and she has recently completed her biggest commission to date, Heckfield Place, a luxury hotel in Hampshire.

Katie Fontana, the co-founder and creative director of British Standard, discovered Felicity’s work some years ago and has incorporated her products into showrooms ever since. “The elemental nature of the material works beautifully with the plain elegance of our cupboards” she explains. Like all natural materials, rush wears well, acquiring signs of human activity that, over time, infuse each object with unique character.

Felicity taught herself to weave in 1992. When her supplier died, there was no one to take over the harvest, so, after a two-hour lesson, she began to gather rush herself. Now she has four helpers who go out on four punts (all called Bella) each year between July and August, cutting freshwater bulrush from riverbeds in Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire. “It’s a wild crop,” explains Felicity, “we don’t own it.” She seeks permission from the landowners each year. “They are all very lovely and get a log basket or something gorgeous from us in return.”

The rush is cut using a knife with a six-foot handle and a three-foot blade – a tool that has remained unchanged for centuries (rush matting has been used in Britain for as long as there have been dwellings). It is cut from the riverbed without disturbing the root structure and Felicity is careful not to return to the same area for four years, which allows the rush to regrow. Her team gather up to two tonnes of rush each day during the harvest. The rush is then stacked against a hedge to dry. The colour of the rush varies from vivid green to gold depending on the drying conditions. “There are no chemicals used in any part of the process: it is entirely natural,” explains Felicity. Once dry, the rush is tied into bolts and brought into the barn for weaving.

“This was the first thing I ever made in basket form,” says Felicity, holding up a miniature garlic basket, which we are about to recreate from the bolt of dampened rush on the showroom floor. (The rush has to be worked wet or it will be too brittle to weave.) Felicity has already prepared ‘stakes’ for us to form the foundation of our small baskets – this is the first stage of the process. We each select 10 stakes, and arrange them alternately so that the thinner ‘tip’ of the rush is placed next to the wider ‘butt’. Finding the rough centre of the rush, we weave five vertical stakes into five horizontal stakes until a tight chequerboard square is formed in the centre of the stakes. “You don’t want to see any daylight,” instructs Felicity, holding her example up to the light. “Don’t be scared of the rush,” we are reminded again. “It’s beautifully soft to work with.”

Once a foundation has been woven, the next stage involves looping in a pair of ‘weavers’. We each select a long strand of rush from the bolt and create long loop from the tip that is placed behind one stake and then woven around the stakes alternately. Holding the structure up against your body, you move methodically around the foundation, pulling one strand of the weaving pair to the left each time as you start to build up the walls of your basket.

Felicity handles the rush with a confidence that eludes most of the participants in the workshop. “It’s not about maths,” she assures the room. “It’s about the look of the object: you should be able to see where you’re going, and where you’ve gone wrong.” When a weaving pair runs out, the group are shown how to loop in a new rush to form the next weaving pair. Eventually – with frequent intervention from Felicity – the walls of our baskets creep upwards.

To finish the design, Felicity demonstrates how to thread the ten original stakes securely into the woven walls of the basket using a ‘threader’ (an enlarged, blunt needle). Once secure, we are told to allow the rush to dry for a day before trimming the ends of the stakes and any errant strands. Felicity adds a knotted handle to the design so the basket can hang from a delicate plaited loop.

We each leave the workshop clasping an imperfect form, woven under the guidance of one of Britain’s last remaining rush workers. Whilst many of us haven’t achieved that elusive state of flow that rewards more experienced makers, we have gained a newfound understanding of an ancient craft and of the “fabulous, gorgeous stuff” that is freshwater bulrush.