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Keeping bulrush business alive

Shawn Cumberbatch

Keeping bulrush business alive

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There is no need to convince Rawle Francis that he is one of the last local exponents of a once dominant but now dying craft.
These days the 67-year-old “country boy” turned urban dweller finds it much harder to secure buyers for his handmade wooden chairs, the kind that were once seen in many Barbadian households.
But with the support of a well-known local hardware store and some other loyal customers, Francis has resolved to stay in business as long as he has the strength.
What makes his Brittons Hill, St Michael operation unique is that it produces chairs and a few other pieces of furniture using bulrush, a grass-like plant found in wetlands. Francis makes his rush chairs from the seemingly unlimited supply of raw material he collects twice weekly from the Scotland District, including Bawdens, St Andrew.
Speaking to BARBADOS BUSINESS AUTHORITY during an interview at his workshop, Francis said he was proud that the trade he was once reluctant to pursue full-time after his father “Goldie” taught him the skill decades ago in Hillaby, St Thomas, had enabled him to build his home.
He was disappointed, however, that the now popular imported “cheaper plastic chairs” had superceded the rush variety he said lasted “20 to 30 years if cared for”.
?“I came along and saw my father building these chairs as a boy and he taught me and told me ‘Rawle, learn to build a chair’. I used to help him by going in the swamp to cut the rush, buying the wood with him in town and I learnt to build them and he told me ‘that is how you get money’,” he recalled.
“I didn’t want to do any chairs and I said ‘that isn’t going to bring any money in a hurry’. Afterwards when I got about 21 years old I left for Canada and I spent some years in Canada. After I returned from Canada then I decided to stick with it and made the chairs.
??“They don’t sell as well now as they did before because the plastic chairs are more popular, but these chairs can last for years and this is my business, this is how I make my living. It is in my blood and I like it.”
Francis, who spoke as he prepared six bar stools for a local business, and two chairs for “a lady in St Joseph”, said he “can put anything in rush”, including chairs for the dining room, foot stools, bar stools, rocking chairs, bedside tables and children’s chairs. Depending on the request an item can take from a day to a week to complete.
The process starts when he collects the rush and includes exposing it to sunlight so that it dries before it is twisted into long coils and hand-wovened.
Acknowledging that he was getting older and would eventually be unable to practice his craft, Francis said a major disppointment was that so far he could not find individuals interested in making these “real real Bajan chairs”. But he has not given up hope that this will change.
“It isn’t a hard skill to learn but you have to put your mind to it, you have to be dedicated. I can shut my eyes and do this, but it seems no one wants to learn to do this. If I could find someone I could train that would be good, because this is a dying art, but this is the only means I get a dollar from. This is a nice art,” he said.
??“I would love to pass this on to anybody at all, once they are willing I would show them how to do the rush in the chair. Anyone can make a chair, but it is the craft of how to put the rush on the chair.”