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Rush Hour

Selvedge Magazine
Felicity Irons was a fast learner

When the last of a gargantuan length of rush matting was finally laid in the long gallery of Elizabethan Mansion Hardwick Hall, rush worker Felicity Irons, allowed herself a rare moment of pride. “When everyone had left, I drew breath and just stood there. This was the biggest piece I’d ever done. It took nine of us six months to make it. Fifty metres long, nearly seven metres wide, all handmade and fully fitted. I never thought we’d manage it.”

Lean, striking and immensely strong, 45 year old Felicity sustains an industry that nearly disappeared from the east of England in the last 20 years. Her work – from delicate weaves to chunky coils of intense green bulrush – graces the tables, floors and seats of those with a taste for traditional crafts. Her chaotic workshop on a Bedfordshire farm is strewn with designs and projects, loose rush and half-finished matting as she strives to finish another sizeable order of some 30 chairs for an unnamed American client. “Oprah Winfrey?” she speculates, half joking.

What makes Felicity’s work so rare is her end-to- end approach – she hand cuts and dries all her ownrush every summer before heading back to her workshop for the rest of the year to plait, weave and sew her creations. Her craft is local because the gravel beds of the rivers Ouse and Nene offer some of the best rushes in the country. And it’s here on the edge of the fens in Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire that she slices them with a six-foot scythe, before piling them high on a wobbly punt – this year she and her small team harvested 2,500 “bolts” or bundles of rushes, all now stored in 12th century barn next door to her studio.

East Anglian summers are usually dry and hot – suited to drying rush in stubble fields and atop hedges without risk of mould. If the sun doesn’t bleach them too strongly, they retain a vivid green that can make the ubiquitous continental rush and water hyacinth look flat and grey by comparison. If it rains, Felicity bundles her crop into a greenhouse before all is lost.

If she hadn’t broken her back in a car accident in Australia some 20 years ago, Felicity would never have started out in the all-but-vanishing rush industry. She trained as an actress; her dream was to study and perform abroad. But aged 25 and bored by a long and gruelling convalescence back home in England, she picked up the basics of furniture restoration from her mother. One day back in 1994 she turned up to buy rushes to learn that her supplier, the Bedfordshire man Tom Arnold who’d harvested them all his life had died – leaving no-one to take on his business. Tom’s brother, then in his seventies, spotted Felicity as a “grafter” and offered her what was left of his brother’s empire – a couple of punts, a scythe and a short list of clients. “He put me in the boat, showed me how to cut, said ‘off you go girl’ and that was it,” she remembers. “The best thing about the car accident – and it was awful – is that I’ve ended up doing something I love.”

Hundreds of years ago, and even at the turn of the 20th century, these rivers were a busy place in summertime. For three months, gangs of men would wade in to cut rush, sleeping by night in tents along the banks, their clothes spread out to dry for the following day. Their harvest was sent downstream by boat or horse and cart to be sold to furniture makers and coopers – once all casks would be sealed with a piece of rush bottom and top – barrel makers still use it today for brewers’ traditional wooden casks.

Since ancient times people would strew rushes on floors of dwellings, houses and churches, sometimes mixed with herbs such as meadow sweet, lavender and camomile which released sweet smells when walked upon – disguising the stench of old food, animal mess and dirt that lurked beneath. Even Queen Elizabeth I was reported to be partial to meadowsweet.

After being invited to bid to supply Holyrood Palace with floor covering, Felicity realised this was the direction she should take. She lost that bid but has since won numerous prestigious commissions. Drawing upon pictures and handbooks, she created her distinctive matting, plaited and sewn together with jute, which once graced the floors of the houses of the gentry. An early painting of Montacute House – where Felicity’s matting features today – shows a traditional nine-end rush flooring weave. Her work has been snapped up by the National Trust and other historic properties such as Hampton Court and Kew Palace. Shakespeare’s Globe – where pit audiences would stand on strewn rush and actors would walk upon matting – also has commissioned her, along with a few boutique hotels, the owners of a Daniel Liebeskind-designed house and director Ridley Scott for his film Gladiator.

As she works, Felicity rubs her hands and arms with pain killing gel – two decades of weaving, plaiting and sewing have taken their toll on her joints. “This is a lovely bolt,” she says of her current rushes. “Long and supple and easy to work with.” Rushes are more demanding than willow, she explains. They must be wet to work with – she regularly squirts them with water – and pulled tighter than you would think possible because they shrink when dry and lose tension. In fact, all owners of her matting are warned to water it regularly to keep it supple – essential when you consider some 165,000 pairs of feet trample over her National Trust pieces a year.

Felicity exercises rigid quality control: plaits must be perfectly straight, weaves must be even. Her only equipment is a small threading tool; everything else is grit and toil; she employs just one fulltime worker. People attending her weekend workshops are amazed how long it takes to produce a mat, hat or tote, yet won over by the feel and smell of the product.

While traditional matting forms the bread and butter of her business, Felicity has a canny eye for design. She was invited to exhibit her exquisitely woven rush shoes, complete with ash heels, at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, and her work’s been shown in New York’s Frick Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She makes Moses baskets interwoven with lavender and camomile and is experimenting with the sweet-scented Acorus – a rush lookalike widely used by perfumiers – which she chanced upon growing amongst the rushes a couple of harvests ago. She even contemplates creating a rush ‘fabric’. “People don’t realise just how soft it can be against the skin.”

Yet as painstaking, laborious and exhausting as her work may be – it takes a full eight hours of work to produce one square meter of matting it’s never a chore. The only chore, Felicity says, is not having enough time to develop her own designs. And with that she is off, keen to scout around a church where she knows a rush wall panel hangs, eager to research another design

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