Taking a punt with rush weaver Felicity Irons
Words Tamsin Blanchard
Photographs Alan Clarke
Film Saul Pankhurst
Felicity Irons is one of the last of the English rush weavers, keeping alive a craft that remains unchanged since Anglo Saxon times, using crops she harvests herself from a punt on the river Ouse. How did she learn this ancient art? ‘I taught myself from a book…’
The wind is blowing through the tall green maize next to us, the leaves dancing in tune with the breeze as Felicity Irons deftly knots blue string around bolts of long green rushes. She is working her way along a high hedge that runs three-quarters of a mile up the length of the field. Every few yards there is another bolt of rushes to be tied up, each one leaning up against the hedge to dry. Her wiry terrier Molly pants in the sunshine, keen to go back to the workshop for lunch. But she knows lunch will have to wait. There are only three days left to harvest and there are 200 more sheaves still to cut and tie.
It takes about three days for the rushes to dry out enough. These bolts are from Wednesday’s harvest. Each morning Irons gets up at 5am ready to drive an hour or so along the River Ouse where the rush grows in abundance. She cuts from a punt, about two tons of rush a day. It gets lighter as it dries out. ‘It’s been fantastic cutting weather and drying weather this year; it’s been brilliant. But it’s seven days a week for six weeks. It is relentless but I go into a sort of grieving at the end of it. I hate being indoors even though I have a fantastic workshop. I just miss being on the water, I love it. So quiet, so peaceful; you’re on your own. Yesterday morning I was in heaven.’
Irons is down to her fancy blue polka-dot bra, her burnished skin testimony to five solid weeks of working outdoors. The rushes, too, change colour according to the wind and the weather. Her Japanese client, who commissions Irons to weave specific items like rice bowls for the cookery school she runs next door to her shop, particularly likes the rushes green. New for this year will be bento boxes. ‘The Japanese love it green,’ she says, ‘although for carpets, people like it more mellow. It changes colour throughout its life. We keep some of it in a really dark barn so it keeps its colour as long as it can.’ Although she loves the harvest period and the days she spends out in the reed banks, she is also itching to start work with this new crop.
She ties up a last bolt of the batch, talking to me with the blue string between her teeth. With her brother Davey, who comes down from Scotland every year for the harvest, it’s time to load up the trailer and drive them down to the barn for storage. Today – it’s Sunday and the pair have been busy since dawn – I’ve been allowed to interrupt for an hour or so to hear Irons’ story and learn more about this ancient ritual that has been providing flooring for pretty much as long as there have been dwellings. I help gather the bales onto the back of the trailer. Irons and Molly hop into the Land Rover and I stand on the trailer with Davey as we drive through the fields to unload.
‘I MISS BEING ON THE WATER. SO QUIET, SO PEACEFUL. YESTERDAY MORNING I WAS IN HEAVEN’
As we bump along, you can see over the tops of the hedges across to the horizon. It’s a blazing August sky with just the odd wisp of cloud. Grange Farm, all 1,600 acres of its neat arable land, is an idyllic place to be. A pheasant skips out of our way and Davey points out a fenced-off area that’s full of chicks. They are bred here ready for the shooting season. The maize is there to provide shelter for them when they are old enough to leave the enclosure.
We drive into the barn and it’s cool and dark, the sunlight glinting through the holes in the wooden slats. The timber frame is ancient. There is an intense earthy, grassy smell in there. We carry the bolts into a far corner of the barn, counting each one in. There’s a total of 43 on this trailer load – they are destined for Scotland where 800 of them will end up at Speyside Coopers for the construction of whisky barrels. Irons separates a few bolts out because the rush is too fine. She will keep those to weave herself.
‘We cut a record 125 bolts yesterday,’ says Irons as Davey chalks up the total on a board. The average is 85 a day. In three days’ time the barn will be full with just enough room to drive the Land Rover in and out. Davey will go back home to Scotland to his on-site mobile catering business. And Irons will be back in her workshop.
Irons is one of the last of the English rush weavers, keeping alive a craft that remains unchanged since Anglo-Saxon times when, if you were wealthy, you might enjoy the luxury of a rush mattress (Irons has just completed a commission to make one, so it’s still one of life’s luxuries). ‘People would have cut it all over the country and used it for strewing before rush matting was made. The strength from the rush comes from the weaving. You have to wet it to work it otherwise it just breaks.’ The rush would be scattered on to an earthen floor and changed once or twice a year. It’s all very medieval.
‘We did a lot of work with the Globe Theatre,’ she says. ‘We’ve made lots of things for them over the years. We’ve provided them with rush, and we’ve made things for the costumes department.’ She also works with the film industry. Chances are if it’s a medieval drama, there will be some of Irons’ rush involved somewhere along the line. Not to mention the National Trust, making carpets for great halls and keeping them repaired year after year, not least at Isaac Newton’s birthplace, Woolsthorpe Manor.
Irons’ mother is an antiques dealer and upholsterer and her father was a cabinetmaker and French polisher. But she says she started rush weaving out of necessity in 1992 after she had a car crash and couldn’t go out to get a job. ‘I taught myself, I picked up a book. I would see how something was made and I’d make it a bit better and then do it again.’ She was working from her mum’s front room with the help of a Prince’s Trust loan, doing rush seating. She paid off her loan and applied for an extension so she could move into a tiny workshop. ‘Then I found a maker and joiner who let me use a tiny corner of his workshop, but he encouraged me to start doing other things and to be creative, I suppose.’
She started to cut the rush after her supplier died. Tom Arnold’s family had been cutting rush in the Bedford area since the 1700s. ‘Tom’s mum was cutting up until she was 72, which is what I intend to do,’ says Irons. ‘But they only cut for about two weeks a year. We cut for five to six weeks. The business has really grown – but gradually, so it’s really nice.’
When Arnold died, there was no one left in the family to take over, so his brother Jack suggested that Irons cut her own. ‘He said, “I’ll take you out” and he gave me a two hour lesson on a punt, then said, “take me to the bank and I’ll go back”.’ And that was it. He left her to it and she was cutting rush singlehandedly for three to four years. She still uses some of Tom Arnold’s rush knives, a design unchanged for centuries. ‘People weren’t buying all that much… Tom used to sell it all, he never used to work it. Gradually people realised that English rush was good again.’ She took on two lads to help and business has grown every year since then. Today there is a 12-week waiting time for a carpet and everything she does is made to order. She doesn’t have time to keep stock.
Back in the workshop, there’s a carpet laid out on the floor. It’s 2.5m by 5m and looks like it’s nearly finished. ‘That’s about a month’s work,’ says Irons. The plaited strips of rush are sewn together using jute twine. She has three full-time employees and six makers who work from home locally. They are Bengali women, not because they have a tradition of rush weaving (they don’t – ‘They look at this and say, “Why the hell would anyone want a carpet made of grass when you can get a perfectly good one from Carpet Rite?”’) but because they like the fact they can work from home around their children’s schedules.
‘IT IS RELENTLESS BUT I GO INTO A SORT OF GRIEVING AT THE END OF IT. I HATE BEING INDOORS’
It’s a rustic space. A basket full of freshly picked tomatoes sits on the floor. There are some chairs hanging up, waiting to be repaired. ‘There’s about a month’s work waiting here while I’ve been doing the harvest,’ says Irons. On a table is a pile of round baskets of different sizes and dimensions, the rhythm of the weave perfectly paced. Irons has written an orders list on a blackboard. For cutlery makers David Mellor Design she has placemats in small, medium and oval as well as a small quantity of breadbaskets.
Nothing is in large quantities, as befits a small artisanal business. These really are small luxuries, each one handmade from the raw material cut by Irons’ own hands. The respect for the rushes is evident in the way it is worked. I eye up a square basket with a leather handle which I am told is a reject. It looks pretty good to me, with its neat checquerboard weave. ‘It’s not good enough,’ she says. Quality is everything here.
Perhaps her most ambitious work is a limited edition collection of chairs she recently made in collaboration with the designer Christopher Jenner as part of his exploration of craft. ‘Our ambition was to challenge this most traditional of crafts with cutting-edge technology,’ said Jenner. ‘Using technology allowed us to create a freeform structure into which Felicity could weave. This approach repositions the craft in a contemporary perspective and allows it to embrace the future.’
The English oak frame form of the chair itself was inspired by the looping technique of weaving. Its deep, scoopy seat was created by Irons weaving her finest rushes around a polystyrene mould to create an organic shape. The weaving itself is so fine and concise it is hard to imagine it has been done by hand. ‘Rush weaving is one of the oldest English crafts, a true expression of our identity,’ said Jenner. ‘As one of the few artisans left working in the technique I wanted to see how we could unite Irons’ talent with our ideas.’ Each of the 12 chairs took Irons seven weeks to weave and the project took a year to complete.
I ask if there is one element of her work she particularly loves. ‘I like all of it,’ she says. ‘It’s not boring.’ Irons also teaches in Denmark and in West Sussex, at West Dean College, which specialises in conservation and creative arts. On top of that, she runs her own workshops a few times a year: they sell out almost immediately. And it’s not hard to see why. Irons’ enthusiasm for her craft – and the rush itself – is infectious. There’s something seductive about the smooth regularity of the woven baskets and flooring, which feels so satisfying underfoot. But there’s little time for idle contemplation. Molly’s had her lunch and a well-deserved drink and it’s time to get back out in the field to tie up the rest of the rush. Tomorrow is another day, another bed of reeds to cut. And Irons intends to make the most of every minute.