What is thatching?

wiseGEEK Writing Contest

Thatching Past & Present

What is thatching?

Thatching is the use of vegetation to roof a dwelling, and is one of the oldest forms of roofing there is. Historically it has been used all over the world and in some areas thatching is still a popular roofing material as it is readily available, cheap and effective.

In the Scotland, the ‘black house’ was a traditional dwelling built with dry stone walls, no windows and either a thatched or turf roof. The’ roundhouse’ is another style of thatched dwelling common throughout Western Europe until the Roman occupation. This was a circular house with walls made either of stone or wooden posts covered with wattle-and-daub panels and a conical thatched roof.

The Diversity of Thatching:

Thatch’s popularity is due to the fact that it can be made from almost any crop and in the past people had to make do with what they had. Materials as diverse as broom, sedge, flax, straw, heather and water reeds have been used. Most common in the south of England was wheat straw, water reeds in East Anglia, and in Scotland heather was often used. In traditional thatched houses, there was no chimney - the smoke from the fire just went up into the eaves and escaped through the thatch. Soot acted as a preservative and recently a piece of thatch over 600 years old was found which led to new discoveries about the type of crops grown historically in Britain. Often with straw thatch a new layer of thatch was just laid on top of the old layer, thus creating a huge build up of thatch.

Today water reed is the most popular thatching material in the UK and much of the reeds used are imported from Turkey and Eastern Europe. Water reed has been known to last up to 70 years, but the usual life of any thatched roof is around 45–50 years.

Popularity and decline in the UK:

Most archaeologists agree that all early buildings in Britain, from the Neolithic until the late medieval period, were made with either thatch or turf. The decline in thatching began in the late 1700’s with the industrial revolution and rural depopulation. During this time there were changes in the type of crops grown – shorter stemmed strains of wheat were favoured over the traditional longer varieties which were better for thatching. There was also large scale drainage of wetlands and so less water reeds, the other main thatching material.

The decline of thatch continued right into the 19th and early 20th centuries and it nearly disappeared entirely in the 1950’s as a result of shortage of thatching materials, rising labour costs and the loss of skilled crafts people. Finally, in the economic boom of the 1960’s, an interest in thatching was rekindled and today the UK has more thatched roofs than in any other European country, with over 100,000 thatched dwellings. Thatch is an eco-friendly roofing material, so its popularity is set to rise with the increasing focus on environmentally sustainable building methods.

submitted by Sarah Ade