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  • Writer's pictureNimble Norfolk

A brief introduction to cane furniture

Hello folks! Welcome to the first blog post.

In this post, I will answer some of the common questions I get.

What is cane, anyway?

Cane is a natural material. It comes from the rattan plant, which grows like a vine in tropical forests. When it is harvested, the outer bark is peeled off in long lengths, and cut into various widths. The centre of the vine is used as cane for basket weaving, or spline and plugs for cane furniture.

Why is it used in furniture?

Weaving plant materials into useful objects is a truly ancient skill. Some of the earliest surviving examples are made of it - think Biblical rush baskets, or Tutankhamun's funereal furniture. In South East Asia, rattan was the most favoured plant for crafting woven furniture and basketry.

When damp, the rattan bark is pliable and easy to bend and weave. When it has dried, it is strong and moderately flexible. Cane is slightly elastic - when sat on or bent, it wants to spring back into its prior shape. You can ‘train’ it into a new shape by dampening it and allowing it to dry in its new position. This makes it comfortable to sit on and resilient during regular use. 

When did it come to the West?

With the spread of European colonialism during the 1600s, some of the rattan came back from South East Asia. As with any scarce new thing, it became popular with the wealthy, and as trade increased, more and more rattan came back to Europe. By the Victorian era, it was everywhere in the UK. Itinerant weavers used to go door-to-door in towns and cities, offering to repair any broken seats in the house.

Why are there so many names?

Some of them refer to the materials used, some are related to the type of furniture it’s commonly seen on, and some relate to the methods used.

Wicker is any sort of woven plant material, though of course nowadays you can sometimes get plastic versions too.

Rush is usually bullrush, though in the USA there are some other plants that are used for the same purpose but don't technically belong to the same family.

Seagrass is a type of grass that grows near the sea, and is spun into a basic rope twist. Although conflated with rush, it's a bit different in temperament and shouldn't always be used in the same weaving patterns.

Cord is usually Danish cord, or paper cord, and is usually seen on Danish dining chairs of the mid 20th Century. Of course, it can be used in other styles of chair too, and sometimes in place of something like seagrass.

Hole-to-hole, hand cane and lacing are all names that relate to the process of caning - the original styles of cane furniture had holes drilled in the wooden frame, and individual strands of rattan are passed in and out of them to create the desired weaving pattern. Further to this, there is ‘blind’ hand cane and what I refer to as ‘true’ hand cane.

Blind cane has holes drilled only part way through the furniture frames. Each strand must be woven and then glued into place. The benefits of this are that the reverse of the panels show none of the workings of the caning process, giving a very neat appearance. There are several drawbacks - it can be slower; the glue needs to set at each stage; removing the previous cane can be difficult if the glue used is too strong or not water soluble; correcting mistakes can disrupt or dislodge more than the current strand; and getting the right tension can be harder.

‘True’ hand cane has holes drilled all the way through the furniture frames. A long strand of rattan can be passed down one hole, across the solid frame on the back side of the panel, and back up through the next hole. I sometimes describe it as sewing with cane, and find myself using embroidery terms to describe processes as they’re so similar! The benefits are that it’s faster, easier to adjust during the weaving process, and gives more flexibility with edge finishing options. The drawbacks are mainly to do with strength and appearance - over time, or with too tight tension, the chair rails can split along the line where the holes are drilled. The reverse of the panel is also not as neat, as the loops of cane are visible. However, with this latter concern, some upmarket furniture has been designed with the best of both worlds. The holes are drilled all the way through frame, and are slightly recessed. Then, when the weaving is finished, a sliver of matching frame wood is secured over the back side of the cane loops to hide the workings and give a luxury appearance. This is usually seen on the backs of chairs, as these are more likely to be seen than the underside of the seats.

Pressed cane, loom cane, cane webbing and machine cane are the modern incarnation of rattan furniture. As fashions changed, and post-war Capitalism developed, it became clear that hand weaving seats every few decades was very dear now that local 'Western' labour had become expensive. So, a lot of the weaving was outsourced back to countries in Asia, where labour was (and still is) comparatively cheap. It is now possible to buy rolls of pre-woven rattan in several different sizes and styles. I usually call it pressed cane, as instead of weaving single strands into individually drilled holes, the pre-woven panels are pressed and glued into a groove in the frame, and secured with spline.

French cane is usually hand cane, and sometimes, more specifically, blind cane. France used to make particular styles of furniture with rattan panels called bergere, so the country of origin became the name of the object. 

Bergere is a specific style of furniture which arose in France during the 1700s, and is probably why the term 'French cane' appeared. Similarly, High Wycombe chairs are usually dining chairs with a rattan seat. There were several factories making caned chairs in the area from the Victorian era right up to around the 1970s.

Mid-Century Modern is an era of design from the 20th Century. Several iconic pieces of furniture relied on woven seats - the Marcel Breuer Cesca chairs, and the various Danish seats being prime examples. It is also currently fashionable, so there are several manufacturers selling new furniture in similar styles, and nice vintage examples can go for quite large sums of money.

But what about--

If you have any further questions, please feel free to drop me a message or send an email, and I'll do my best to help.

You said it would be brief!

There’s a lot to know! Welcome to the wonderful world of woven furniture.

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