Ralph Belgrove learned the art of rushing as a child at a school for the visually impaired. Although he can't see the rush clearly, his fingers sense its width and flexibility, letting him create an evenly woven surface.
Before cattails are woven, they must be soaked overnight. The plants are then passed through a laundry wringer, which breaks the fibers until the rush becomes almost as pliable as fabric.
1. Forty-seven-year-veteran craftsman Ralph Belgrove, of Yorkville Caning in New York City, begins a chair seat by securing four or five strands of rush to the center of one side of the frame, using tape or a tack. These strands are called foundation rush; they supply the necessary resistance for the finished seat.
2. A typical chair seat is wider in front than in back. To get an even pattern, Belgrove weaves at each front corner until both widths are equal.
3. While twisting the cattail, he trims away weak sections and adds where needed.
4, 5. As the open center square gets smaller, the American four-triangle pattern begins to emerge.
6. Cardboard is inserted between the layers of rush to help support the finished seat. Weaving then continues until the center is closed and the last cattail strand is secured to the underside with a tack.
7. The finished seat is "combed" with a wooden mallet, which evens out and flattens the rush. Although a stain could mimic the patina of aged rush, the experts at Yorkville prefer to let the aging process occur naturally as the rush oxidizes. A coat of shellac encourages uniform oxidation.
Rush is appropriate on a variety of furniture styles. Originally used only on seats, it is also applied to chair backs and even to coffee tables. Click through the slideshow to see other examples of rush furniture, including a streamlined stool, a Sheraton-style settee, and a ladder-back chair.
A contemporary oak stool with a fiber-rush seat sits atop a 1940s American occasional chair, designed in the style of T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings. The chair's back and seat are American cattail rush. Below it, a four-by-four-foot coffee table in fiber rush is a testament to the large surfaces that can be rushed. The top of the table required three working days to complete.
A Sheraton-style lyre-back walnut settee combines three individually woven American-cattail-rush seats. In the foreground, a sensible rush seat complements the stout legs and back of an oak Charlotte Perriand chair made around 1940. Perriand's sturdy design has inspired countless reproductions.
An Italian walnut ladder-back chair, circa 1960 and attributed to Gio Ponti, has a prebound grass seat. The chair hangs from the rafters at Yorkville Caning, safely above the bustle of the busy workshop.
Learn More About Rushing Furniture