What are seagrass rugs made of? Myth busting!

seagrass square rug
Seagrass square rug from Frank’s Cane and Rush Supply

What are seagrass rugs made of?  Myth-busting: The ‘seagrass’ used for these products is actually a ‘sedge’ grown above ground like rice — not from underwater seagrasses, a claim in many stories I found on the internet. Indeed, the epicenter of seagrass cultivation and craft production seems to be the Vietnamese village Nga Son in Thanh Hoa Province, Vietnam.

I became interested in the question of what seagrass rugs were actually made of when I wrote my recent story about where to find super retro authentic seagrass square rugs. My initial research had me scratching my head, because I simply could not believe this product was made from plants harvested underwater — yes, from underwater ‘seagrasses’ that do indeed exist — as numerous googled stories suggested.

Then, in a followup discussion with Mike, the owner of Frank’s Cane and Rush Supply — he said he had actually been to a country where seagrass rugs were made — and that the plant was cultivated above ground, not underwater. He said he was told the word ‘seagrass’ is used for the product because when the fields of the plant are fully-grown, they sway in the wind in a way that makes them look like waves in the ocean. He also marvelled at the amount of misinformation about what seagrass rugs were made of found online. He said he and his staff at one point tracked the myth to its source. 

seagrass rug
Seagrass squares rug at Oceanic Arts

So I kept researching and turned up Vietnam — and “sedge” — and “rice-like” cultivation and Nga Son mats — all turned up. There are even craft-based tourism businesses set up to visit Nga Son to see first-hand how these products are grown and made. This tour operator has a lovely write up on the history of the sedge aka seagrass mats produced in Nga Son for more than 150 years. Hmmmm…. I have a friend who currently lives in Vietnam. This reminds me: I need to go visit — and to head to Nga Son while I’m there!

Five species of seagrass grown in Vietnam

seagrass cultivation and production in viet nam
This 40-page paper — super informative! — explores how to improve the economic development opportunities for seagrass cultivation and production in Nga Son.

This 2010 economic research paper produced under the auspices of the United Nations by Nguyen Anh Phong, National Consultant, and Alfons Eiligmann, International Consultant, is super informative. This 40-page economic development study, “Value Chain Study for Sea Grass in Thanh Hoa Province, Viet Nam,” says there are five species of seagrass grown in Vietnam:

There are five species of sea grass in Viet Nam, namely (1) sea grass with white flower (“Coi bong trang” in Vietnamese or Cyperus tojet Jormis); (2) sea grass with brown flower (“Coi bong nau”-Cyperus Coxym bosus); (3) three-sided sea grass (“Coi ba canh” or Cyperus nutans); (4) sea grass with black-spotted flower (“Coi dau ruoi”); and (5) “Coi ke”.

The research also points to the village of Nga Son as the most celebrated producer:

The quality of sea grass differs from province to province, even for the same species. Thanh Hoa is today the major production area of the country…. The sea grass in Nga Son district in Thanh Hoa province is considered to be the best, especially the sea grass in Nga Tan Commune.

Myth: Seagrass rugs are made from underwater plants.
Fact: They are made from a sedge grown above ground, like rice.

Bet you weren’t expecting a story like this on Retro Renovation! You never know where a retro rabbit hole will appear!

  1. Mary Elizabeth says:

    Love the turn this site is taking. Once you get interested in the origins of styles and products, there is no telling where you will end up. I am old enough to remember that on the New England shore, before there were waves and waves of invasive phragmites, there was a type of sedge we called “seagrass,” for the reason that you cited–the grasses blowing in the wind look like ocean waves–and also for the reason that the grasses grew by the shore, not in the water, but around tidal pools and estuaries.

  2. Hi-Lovely article. But does anyone know where to find the seagrass squares from long again that had a more lace-like appearance? I did ask Frank but he said there was no longer anyone to make those.
    I would love to find a source.

    1. Pam Kueber says:

      Hi Victoria, I think I know what you are talking about. Check sites like wayfair, overstock, world market, pier one, even pottery barn — also just search google using various terms like jute rug, seagrass rug, coir rug, etc. I’ve seen them out there….

  3. Charlie Korz says:

    We had one of these circa 1964, in a Levitt house on Long Island. My clearest memory of it as a kid was trying to play on the floor and it being painful. Not sure what finally persuaded the folks to move it on. I think my aunt had it for many years.

    As an adult, I like the look, but this is one of those “you get what you pay for” items. Not so different than cheap welcome mats that disintegrate with little wear vs bullet proof but expensive variety.

    1. Pam Kueber says:

      I think I agree — I’ve seen vintage ones that looked fabulous! Agreed, not soft to play on, like plush carpet…

  4. Jeff H says:

    Thank you Pam. I’d like to get one of these, but I have to figure out the extent of shedding and find an appropriate backing to keep the sedge seagrass mat from abrading our cork flooring.

    Yes, true seagrass would not make a good rug– it’s short, thin, and fragile. You can see wrack lines of the stuff washed up on Gulf coast beaches in the U.S., as well as on the east coast of Florida. But it’s also real grass, and some of them even have flowers occasionally, though they don’t come in pretty colors. These seagrasses are super important as nursery habitat for young fishes of all sorts, commercial and otherwise.

  5. carolyn says:

    During medieval times, rushes were laid on the floor much in the same way taverns encourage patrons to throw their peanut shells on the floor – it was easier to sweep up the rushes with gunk spilled on them than trying to keep the floors clean every day. I’m finding history is somewhat universal. Ex: all cuisine has some form of bread. I would imagine sea grass rugs were meant to protect feet from splinters and floors from sand and dirt.

  6. Jane Mackintosh says:

    Thanks for such great research, I love knowing where things come from and what they’re made of. I wish everyone had your curiosity and quest for knowledge. Keep up the good work.

    1. Pam Kueber says:

      Thank you. It’s interesting how these natural fiber rugs can be made out of so many different types of plant, even coconut husk (coir) assuming that’s not a myth !

      1. Tony says:

        Coconut husk fiber rug is real. Plenty of them here in Indonesia. They are rough and short though, so their most common use is for those welcome mats for places where you actually expect people to scrape their shoes before entering (e.g., a farmer’s house). They can’t be made into fine rugs though.

        Another tidbit is that if you buy seagrass fiber rug from Indonesia it’s possible it’s actually water hyacinth fiber. They are not marine, but they are aquatic. Unfortunately there’s no poetic story about them looking like a sea made of grass. It does not look like grass at all but is instead a bunch of floating leaves and flower. The stalk and root are underwater and if the water is deep enough they aren’t even anchored to the bottom. Anyway as best as I can tell when water hyacinth fiber got sold as seagrass, the seller has no idea what this seagrass is, as everyone in the field knows that kelp and the like can’t be used to make rugs, concluded that there must be a misunderstanding, and thought that maybe the buyer meant water hyacinth fiber, which are at least aquatic.

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