Common reed


Made in

Circular 213 Fibre 63 Recycled 118 Textile 88

Common reed

Photos: Alejandra Ortiz de Zevallos

Regresar – Simbiosis

The common reed (phragmites australis) is a plant that can reach 4 meters in height, and the stem can be up to 2 cm in diameter. Its creeping rhizome can grow on the surface and expand in search of water. It can be found in humid soils, on the banks of rivers and lagoons, and in those lower reaches where the speed of the watercourse allows them to root. They can live in both brackish (part fresh and part saltwater) and freshwater. It doesn’t matter if the soil they grow in has a lot of nutrients and is oxygen-rich or has little nutrients and is oxygen-starved. Phragmites simply grow.

Many consider that the reed is a pest due to the speed with which it proliferates. The water, animals, wind and humans mobilise the small fragments of the rhizome/stolons and these are anchored in the ground. From that moment on, the underground rhizomes begin to grow, this extends horizontally through the territory and, in turn, the stem of the reed grows vertically, on which leaves grow. Flowering begins in the summer and in early autumn the food reserves are transferred to the leaves, stems and rhizome system. Finally, the leaves die and fall to the ground and only the stems remain, the canes and these take between 3 and 4 years to fall and then become part of the weakened one.

In Lima, the city where designer Alejandra Ortiz de Zevallos lives, the reed population is scarce, since the city has grown, burying its rivers and water channels. Today there are only two operational canals, Surco and Huatica, both of which are born from the Rímac River and flow into the coast. Despite being the veins that transformed the desert of Lima into a valley more than 2000 years ago and that currently continue to irrigate the green areas of the city, most people are unaware of their existence. There are a few sections that are still exposed and when this happens they are usually very contaminated. The reed grows there in invisible spaces, in the midst of urban overcrowding, on the margins of the invisible hydraulic fabric.

Weaving the leaves from the common reed is an exercise of trying to extend life—an act of nourishing and being nourished by this fibre. To construct these living sculptures, Ortiz de Zevallos combines two weaving techniques, crochet and keshwa. Crochet is an originally Western practice, while the keshwa is a type of high Andean braiding used since pre-Hispanic times to construct bridges, the only one left alive is the Qeswachaka bridge. A technique she learned from the community of Kacllaraccay in Cusco, and then I applied that knowledge to the common reed, which worked well because of the strong resilience that characterises this plant.

The piece Regresar – Simbiosis is inspired by the gestation process; the return to the uterus to remember our primary encounter with water, as mother, shelter and protection and at the same time dissolution.

Additional information

The process to work with the reed material is long and laborious. First, you have to harvest the leaves and investigate the riverbanks to identify any sector that has a high reed population. After collecting the leaves, they must be washed, since mainly the rivers that cross the city, as is the case of the Surco River, can be filled with garbage and it is important to disinfect the leaves before working with them. After washing them, you have to dry them in the sun for 3 or 4 days, then these leaves are divided into several strips so that you can later build a rope with them. The keshwa or rope is a braid with two strands, each strand turns on itself and with the other, to facilitate turns and twisting it is preferable to have wet hands and maintain a constant rhythm. When all the collected reed leaves have already been transformed into a long rope, then you begin to crochet the sculptures.

Information submitted by the maker and edited by the Future Materials Bank.


Common reed


Kacllaraccay, community in Maras - Cusco, Mater Iniciativa, Entre_rios

Physical samples

130-1, 130-2
Accessible to visitors of the Future Materials Lab