Learning From my Mum How to Rush Seat Chairs 27th September 2020
… finally we’ve begun! (And I think I’m not the easiest of students to teach…)
As part of her making a living, my mum Jenny, now 70 years young, not only used to re-seat cane and rush chairs, but over the years taught this craft to hundreds of students at Adult Education centres in South London.
I have childhood memories of watching my mum weave, of the distinctive smell of old wooden chairs wafting through the house, of rushes stinking out the family car, and of cane material being soaked instead of me in the bath…. When Mum had too many commissions she even taught me to cane seat chairs for pocket money. (Hang on a mo – what a businesswoman my mum was! I’ll forgive the child labour – she obviously gave me via osmosis the gift of grafting and my love of teaching!)
Of course at the time I never appreciated what she was doing. How my mum fought to keep her classes alive within a 1990’s adult education system that increasingly undervalued and eventually sort to erase her craft from their course curriculum. In response, after winning a prestigious teaching award, my determined mum set up her own alternative adult education centre, enabling her to continue to pass on her knowledge and skills and to teach her many loyal students.
Now my mum is teaching me and this time it’s rush seating. Using rush that I specifically harvested for us this year from our local Somerset Levels, we decided to begin by working in tandem. Mum is re-seating my large sturdy ladderback country chair. This is the first chair that I ever bought for a few pounds at auction over 20 years ago. Yes it’s a little battered and rustic rather than beautiful, but it’s always lived with me and been used almost daily. For this alone it’s precious and deserves my mum’s loving attention. I’m working on an ebonised Arts & Crafts chair, most likely designed by E.W.Godwin in the 1870’s and manufactured by William Watt. It’s a delicate bedroom chair, so fragile in fact that I found it in pieces and got it for a few pence! But I also found an old Somerset boy who lovingly restored the chair for me.
Having not rush seated a chair in several years mum began quite understandably reaching for her trusty old text books… and immediately found me confiscating them, declaring that I wanted her to follow her instinct and use innate knowledge to teach me (poor mum!) Then, after an interesting discussion over how to prepare rushes, (we err differed quite a bit on how to achieve this), we measured and marked up the chairs, allowing for their trapezium shapes, and then began to weave. I learnt mum’s upholsterers knot, used on a piece of string to hold the ends of rush to where they begin on the side rail. Then I immediately unlearnt the upholsterers knot and handed my mum reusable cable ties… So a bit more weaving, unweaving and weaving again, twisting the rushes and adjusting their size until I got my fine 7 coils to an inch, a little more twisting, weaving along the front and side rails and then the lesson was over.
Not exactly a mega start and I know I’m going to unravel my work and begin the seat again. What I did learn is how amazing my mum is, putting up with my unfair barrage of questions, all dealt with whilst she was only just beginning to feel her way back into her craft.
I have so much to be grateful for. After all the craziness of this year so far, when for months I worried about my mum’s health, when I couldn’t even give my mum a hug, she’s now here beside me in my workshop. When weaving her rush seat I saw a mixture of my mum getting back into her stride, concentrating in one moment, then in the very next drifting off into another time. Mum’s proud of what she’s woven, I‘m really glad. I can tell she’s very much missed weaving rush and had we more time would of carried on and completed the rush seat with only an occasional thought about teaching me! And even though her arthritic hands will be agony for hours, if not days, and she’ll be so tired, I know that mum will already be planning to find more chairs to rush seat.
I’m also only just truly realising how much rush seating alongside me, and teaching me, means to my mum. I’m very lucky.