Making Rush Collars

Harvesting the Rushes

Around the turn of the century huge clusters of rushes could be seen growing in the River Nene. The rushes grew to a height of six or seven feet, and produced a tiny brown flower. The stretch of river between Woodford Mill and Wadenhoe Mill was particularly rich in beds of the finest rushes.

During the summer the local rush-cutters set out to reap their harvest. The men’s equipment consisted of a long blade, (curved at the end and fixed to a long pole which served as a handle), a large wooden rake, (similar to a hay rake), a pair of well worn shoes, and a suit of flannel. This latter garment was made by their wives, and resembled a pyjama suit. The men thought that the flannel was a protection against chills through long periods of immersion in the water.

After donning their ‘protective clothing’, the men walked boldly into the river and proceeded to cut the rushes below the water line. As they were cut, men and boys drew them to the bank with the rakes, where they were spread out to allow the water to drain away.

The finest rushes were separated from the rest and earmarked as ‘coopers’. These were made into bundles known as ‘bolts’ and later dispatched for use in making barrels watertight, by inserting the rushes between the joints in the wood.

In the evening, the rest of the rushes, having previously been made into bolts and tied at each end with a rope of rushes, were packed on to a horse-drawn trolley, and brought to Islip. The next day, before the men set out to cut more, the previous day’s bolts were untied and spread fan wise in the field and even along each side of the road in order that the sun might dry them naturally. This was particularly essential to prevent mould attacking the rushes when stored. This cycle continued until the last rush had been cut.

All Rushes collected

On the last day, it was the custom of the employer to arrange a supper at a tiny inn near the Mill at Wadenhoe, to which the men, their employer and various friends were invited. A highlight of this was the boiling of a huge quantity of new laid eggs, one each for the lads and two or more for the men! After supper it was the custom to sing songs round the piano.

The drying process continued for two or three weeks, until all the moisture had evaporated, and the bolts were stored in a huge barn.

Rush Plaiting

The work of plaiting was done by women and girls as well as men – the women making narrow braids, known as threes, fives, and sevens, having sprinkled water over the rushes to render them pliable. The men made the wider matting, and stood at wooden frames, pushing the 18 inch matting over the top bar as it grew in length and fixing it securely with pegs to hold it firm whilst the plaiting continued.

This wider matting could be sewn together to form a rush carpet for a room, or made into baskets for workmen or for shopping. However, it was used chiefly in the manufacture of horse collars.

Here again, women played a part, for it was their task to join the cloth to the rush matting. For this purpose a wooden clamp held between the knees was used to hold the work in position and enable both hands to be free for sewing with two needles, the holes being first made with an awl and the needles forced through by the use of hand iron, i.e. a piece of iron shaped to fit the palm of the hand with a pencil shaped end which was pierced with a hole for use in pulling through a stubborn needle.

Rush Collars

The next process was the making of the collar. This was done at the local factory, where the men were seated on low stools, with a wooden block at their feet and a locker of various tools e.g. a sharp knife and stone, string, needles, hand iron, steel rods of various lengths and a mallet or two together with wax and thread. Standing at the side was a bundle of rye straw. A crop of rye was grown by the local farmers to provide rye straw for the collar makers.

The making of a collar begins with the stuffing of the part known as the ‘throat’. A wisp of straw is bent over the end of a rod, and forced into the tube of the collar. This action was repeated until, after many blows with a mallet, it was literally ‘as hard as iron’. After the stuffing or filling, came the finishing, when all ends or rough pieces were cut and an extra piece of matting was stretched over the join at the top to make it neat and tidy.

Collars were sent from Islip, by rail, to all parts of the country, chiefly to the agricultural counties for use on farms, but they were also used by the Railway Companies  with the heavy dray horses .


Researched by Thrapston District Historical Society

More information can be found at    Islip Parish Council website