Hats and Mats
Traditional Rush Weaving in Yuanli Township
Text: Owain Mckimm
Photos: Maggie Song
Rush weaving has a long tradition in Miaoli County’s Yuanli Township. Travel in Taiwan recently visited the weavers of Yuanli to find out more about this fascinating craft.
Seventy-two-year-old Liu Cai-yun is sitting on a low stool weaving a mat. Her hands move busily, quickly plaiting strands of triangle rush into a dense mesh of overs and unders. Beneath the blur of her hands, a pattern slowly emerges – the distinctive zigzagging crisscross of the “two-over-one” weave. By varying the weave, she tells me, she can create patterns such as “pineapple skin,” “turtle shell,” “horse’s teeth,” or “Chinese coin.” Around her, the workroom bustles. The weavers of the Taiwan Yuan-li Handiwork Association, all of them women, most of them middle-aged, are hard at work. Some sit on the floor also weaving mats; others sit on stools weaving handbags or hats or small trinkets; and a few are pounding rushes with a club in preparation for weaving. All chatter and laugh and gossip –
but their hands move fluidly all the while.
The workshop is situated at the back of a temple in the Shanjiao Borough of Yuanli Township in Miaoli County. Yuanli’s has had a reputation as the home of rush weaving in Taiwan for several centuries, Chen Zhi-xuan, the workshop’s project manager, tells us. The craft was pioneered by members of Taiwan’s plains-dwelling indigenous tribes, who made practical items like mats, bags, and pouches from reeds and rushes gathered from the banks of the Da’an River, which borders Yuanli Township. “The Han Chinese, who came later, learned these skills from the indigenous tribespeople,” says Chen, “and over time added their own ideas and developed their own techniques.” The rushes were also taken from their natural habitats – wetlands, riverbanks, and estuaries – and transferred to paddy fields, where they could be selectively cultivated for strength and suppleness.
Yuanli’s has had a reputation as the home of rush weaving in Taiwan for several centuries
The variety of rush used by the weavers of Yuanli, known as the “triangle rush,” is particular to the area around and just north of the Da’an River. Chen tells my travel companions and I that attempts to grow the rush elsewhere have resulted in plants of inferior quality that have not been as supple or as fragrant after drying as those grown in the paddy fields of Yuanli. When fully grown, each stem is about 180 cm long, and has a distinctly triangular cross-section – hence its name. The stems are flexible, but not robust enough to be processed by machine; weaving the rush by hand is therefore a must.
The association grows its own rushes in a paddy field near its workshop, with three harvests a year. Members plant the rush early in the year, take the first harvest around May, the second around September, and the third around November. Liu says that the rushes gathered in the second harvest are of optimal quality, and so these are the ones used for making complex, high-priced items like hats and mats. The shorter, thinner stems harvested in the late autumn are used for more basic items.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Yuanli’s rush-weaving industry largely remained a local affair. The industry began to boom, however, during the period when Taiwan was under Japanese colonial rule (1895~1945). According to local legend, a weaver named Hong Yang had a son whose head was ridden with sores, and who was plagued by flies and mosquitoes. To protect him from these pests, she wove a hat from the local rushes. The hat was admired not only by her peers, but also by the Japanese officials who supervised the town. Hong was encouraged to teach the other weavers how she had made the headwear, which resembled a Western dress hat, and the resulting products were exported to Japan as luxury handmade items. The “Taiwanese Panama hat,” as it was known, became an instant hit in Japan, and after a few years up to 700,000 hats were being produced and exported to Japan annually.
During the Japanese era, weaving was a lucrative vocation for the women of Yuanli, Chen says. “They could earn even more than men. And as such, when a woman who could weave got married, her family would receive a larger-than-usual sum of betrothal money from her husband-to-be, as she would end up earning a lot of money for the family she was marrying into.”
Liu, like most girls born during that time, began weaving around age eight. “I’d come home from school and help my mother with her weaving,” she says. “During that time, just about everyone in the town was involved in the industry, and the skills would be passed down from mother to daughter.”
After Taiwan’s retrocession to Nationalist China in 1945, however, the industry went into a slow decline. With the loss of the Japanese market, and mechanization/industrialization making cheaper products available, by the 1970s Yuanli’s hat-and-mat industry was almost completely moribund, and most of the young weavers had become factory workers, contributing to the manufacturing boom that led to Taiwan’s reputation as one of the later 20th century’s Four Asian Tigers.
Then, around the turn of the millennium, something changed. A retired teacher named Ye Wen-hui set out to revive Yuanli’s former glory days as the rush-weaving capital of Taiwan. “The first thing Director Ye had to do was to find people who knew how to weave,” Chen says. “Weaving had been dead for around 30 years, but he managed to find some of the older generation who still remembered how to do it.” From there, the local industry began, slowly, to bloom again. And after securing government funding, and holding weaving classes to pique the interest of Yuanli denizens, the Taiwan Yuan-li Handiwork Association now has a full-time salaried team of craftswomen, who work with young Taiwanese designers to create objects for the association’s own line of products.
As well as the traditional staples of hats, mats, and bags, the association produces purses, notebooks, pillowcases, tablet covers, smartphone pouches, pencil cases, bookmarks, hand fans – all, of course, handmade. Some of these products are pure rush; others have but a hint, with the tactile yellow patches of weave used as decorative appliqué. One of the most striking items is a hand-woven hand fan – not just because of the mind-boggling spiral weave that makes the surface of the fan seem like ripples in a pool, but for the intense fragrance of fresh straw and honey that exudes from it as you waft. This intoxicating scent – particular to Yuanli’s triangle rush – only manifests after the rush has been harvested and dried in the sun for anywhere up to a month. The sunshine is also responsible for the rush’s soft golden hue. After sun-drying, the rushes are put into storage until needed by the weavers.
The association produces purses, notebooks, pillowcases, tablet covers, smartphone pouches, pencil cases, bookmarks, hand fans – all, of course, handmade
“When we want to use the rushes, the first step is to strip them,” says Liu. She takes a needle, pierces the rush just below one of its three corners, and strips it away from the pith. She does this for each of the corners, and the pith is discarded. “Then, we pound the stems to make them more pliable, and roll them to get rid of any of the pith that’s still stuck to the stems. After that we spray them with water so they don’t split. Then we can start weaving.”
This processing is part of what makes the rushes so durable. Liu says that, if cared for correctly, rush-woven products can last for decades. One of the most interesting qualities of the triangle rush is its remarkable ability to absorb sweat and dispel heat. Many of the association’s products have been designed especially with this function in mind. The bed mats, pillow cases, and hats, for example, are perfectly suited to Taiwan’s hot, humid summers, allowing users to remain relatively cool during the island’s more climatically challenging months.
Visitors to Yuanli can stop in at the association’s exhibition rooms, open on weekends, in a set of Japanese-era dormitories opposite the temple. A 30-minute DIY session is available for NT$80. You can also visit the nearby Yuan-li County Triangle Rush Exhibition Hall, set up by the Yuanli Farmers’ Association, for a detailed history of the industry.
Yuanli can be reached easily by train. Direct trains leave from Taipei, and the journey takes 2 to 2½ hours depending on the type of train. To get to the Taiwan Yuan-li Handiwork Association workshop, it’s best to take a taxi from the station. There is a taxi stand just to the right of the station exit. Tell the driver to take you to Cihu Temple.
English and Chinese
Taiwan Yuan-li Handiwork Association (台灣藺草學會)
Add:378, Neighborhood 14, Shanjiao Borough, Yuanli Township, Miaoli County (苗栗縣苑裡鎮山腳里14鄰378號)
Tel: (089) (037) 744-252
Exhibition Rooms Opening Hours: 9 am~12 noon, 1 pm~5 pm (weekends only)
Yuan-li County Triangle Rush Exhibition Hall (藺草文化館)
Add:99, Wanli Rd., Yuanli Township, Miaoli County (苗栗縣苑裡鎮灣麗路99號)
Tel: (037) 741-319
Exhibition Rooms Opening Hours: 9 am~5 pm (closed Mondays)