Old Irish thatch cottage, county clare, Ireland

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Testing textures

The tradition of thatching has been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years. Few descriptions of the building techniques exist, especially in tropical regions.

In equatorial countries thatch is the prevalent local material for roofs, and often walls. There are diverse building techniques from the Hawaiian Hale shelter made from the local ti leaves and pili grass of fan palms to the Na Bure Fijian home with layered reed walls and sugar cane leaf roofs and the Kikuyu tribal homes in Kenya.12 The colonisation of indigenous lands by Europeans greatly diminished the use of thatching.

Records of European thatch date back to before the Middle Ages, when the first villages were established. The creation of villages brought with it the need for readily available, inexpensive, and durable building material, such as thatch. “Thatch houses built in close proximity helped to account for the frequent and disastrous fires that swept through the narrow streets of medieval cities.”3 Eventually the authorities wrote the Ordinance of 1212, arguably the first building regulation in force in London, prohibiting the building of new thatch roofs and demanding the whitewashing of existing ones with plaster daub.
The House of the Five Senses at the Efteling theme park in The Netherlands has the largest thatched roof in the world.

Early settlers to the New World used thatch as far back as 1565. Native Americans had already been using thatch for generations. When settlers arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, they found Powhatan Indians living in houses with thatched roofs. The colonists used the same thatch on their own buildings.4 In the early years of the 19th century thatching was in decline. The commercial production of Welsh slate had begun in 1820 and the mobility which the canals and then the railways made possible meant that other materials became readily available. To compound this, the Napoleonic Wars raised the price of wheat and straw to a prohibitive level in Europe. The number of thatchers declined, as the tradition became regarded as unfashionable.

Technology in the farming industry has had a negative impact on the popularity of thatching. Use of the material declined following the First World War in particular, and with the invention of the combine harvester and the need to develop shorter stemmed varieties of wheat, the long straw once produced was no longer available. The increased loss of water plants and wildlife occurred with the shift from open ponds to cattle troughs and piped water for animals. With it came the decline in availability of rushes, and other wetland vegetation used in thatching. 5

With renewed interest in historic architecture and the trend towards using more sustainable materials, thatching is once again in the ascendancy.6 A large number of thatched houses may be found on the Aran Islands in Ireland, and are re-thatched every four years. One of the very few thatched pubs remaining in Ireland, Andersons Thatch Pub, is located in County Roscommon. Andersons Thatch Pub dates back to 1738, and has always been thatched.

Artwork Comments

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