The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Chair caning

 

The making and repair of chair seats using cane. For the use of other materials, see the separate entry for chair seating.

 

Status Endangered (see ‘Other information’ for further details)
Craft category  Plant fibre
Historic area of significance  London
Area currently practised  UK
Origin in the UK  17th century
Minimum no. of craftspeople required  Approx. 50
Current no. of trainees  0 (see ‘Other information’ for further details)
Current no. of skilled craftspeople  21-50 professionals (see ‘Other information’ for further details)
Current total no. of craftspeople  21-50 highly skilled; 201-500 with some skills

 

History

Chair caningThe first evidence of chair caning in the UK is in London, shortly after Charles II married Catherine of Braganza from Portugal in 1661. Caned Furniture was evident in Portugal before the rest of Europe and many references state that Catherine brought caned chairs with her to London – but there is no evidence for this. The first caned chairs appeared in London around 1660 and quickly became fashionable, encouraged by the demand for new furniture after the Fire of London in 1666 and use by royalty. The craft was initially undertaken by basketmakers, but as demand increased chair caning developed as a distinct craft. Basketmakers used rattan (a waste material used as ‘dunnage’ to stop cases of tea moving in the hold of ships during their long sea journey from China to London) as a cheap alternative to willow as it had similar characteristics. The ‘cane’ used by chair caners is obtained from the rattan palm tree, a climbing tree growing only in the rainforests of the Far East – primarily Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

This first phase of fashion for caned chairs existed until around 1720 by which time there were many chair caners in London. The first chair caners initially established themselves around St Paul’s Church Yard, London and then in adjacent locations within the City of London. Later on there was a large industry and activity around Commercial Road in East London, where much furniture was made, and the London College of Furniture had good training sessions in their furniture making curricula for chair caning, both cane and rush.

In the early-19th century the craft moved from London to High Wycombe due to a combination of improved transport links and exploding demand from the industrial north. This move to High Wycombe took advantage of a plentiful supply of beech trees for frames and skilled labour experienced in making Windsor and other designs of chair frames. The first chair caning in this location was a ‘cottage industry’ undertaken by females, but in the mid-nineteenth century activity transferred to workshops in the area due to increasing demand.

Very little chair caning of new furniture was undertaken in the UK other than initially in London and then High Wycombe. However there were itinerant chair caners (both male and female) who moved from town to town throughout the UK until the early-20th century re-caning chairs outside homes. Caned new furniture was controlled by fashion and the periods of demand were 1670-1720, 1790-1830 and 1850-1920. The only caned furniture made after this was mainly in Denmark when architects and furniture designers developed new patterns and frames

The interest in, and demand for, new caned furniture had all but disappeared after the First World War due to changing fashions. Between the First and Second World Wars, injured soldiers and visually impaired adults e.g. at Henshaw’s Institute for the Blind in Manchester and other similar bodies in various UK locations, were taught how to re-cane chairs (and other crafts) as occupational therapy. But they did not teach their successors and so the number of skilled chair caners progressively declined. After the Second World War there were virtually no skilled chair caners, but now there is a small number who still practise the craft, mainly in the south of England and thinly spread across the UK.

 

Techniques

Cane is available in different widths and there are guidelines on the correct width to use based on the spacing of holes around a panel. The cane is woven (by hand or machine) to create a pattern. The hand-woven material uses holes around the panel and the machine woven material uses a groove around the panel.

There are three chair caning techniques:

  • The traditional technique of weaving a single piece of cane through a series of holes around a panel to achieve a pattern, known as the 6-way pattern. This pattern is used for virtually all caned furniture, but there are other patterns.
  • Close caning where various patterns are used but where there are no gaps between the individual strands. This technique is not used very often.
  • Using a machine-woven sheet of cane with the 6-way pattern, locked into a groove around a panel. Again, the 6-way pattern is used almost exclusively, but there are other patterns available.

 

Local forms

The basic pattern is the 6-way pattern, used on virtually all caned furniture worldwide. However, in the late-19th century, chair caners in High Wycombe developed other patterns e.g. ‘Victoria’ (often used on commodes), ‘4-way’ and ‘5-way’. Additionally, when cane was used on chair backs, as well as using the 6-way pattern other patterns were devised e.g. ‘Rising Sun’, ‘Spiders Web’.

In the late-19th century patterns were devised in USA for use on what they term ‘wicker furniture’ which probably has its origin in mainland Europe and was taken to the USA by Immigrants. In the 1970s another group of patterns was devised. However none of the patterns used in the USA were adopted in the UK and mainland Europe.

 

Sub-crafts

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Market issues: Today, the craft of chair caning in the UK is entirely centred on restoration i.e. the re-caning of existing furniture. No new furniture using the traditional hand-woven technique is currently made, other than very specialist experimental work by literally one or two cabinet makers. The reality is that the activity of re-caning barely provides a living wage and is mainly practised in conjunction with some other activity or some other source of income to achieve a living wage.
  • Market issues: There is certainly a market for the re-caning of furniture, which falls between two extremes of value – items with no value but which have a sentimental (family) association where there is a wish to retain the item, and unique historical items of high value often by historically eminent makers which through use, or age, need re-caning to restore the item to use again. Most furniture for re-caning comes between these two financial extremes.
  • Supply of raw materials: There has been a problem with the quality of cane due to an embargo on exports imposed by Indonesia in 2011 which is seen by some to be a difficulty, but in reality the supply market has adjusted to this. The cane quality is not as good as it was pre 2011 – but is adequate.

 

Support organisations

 

Craftspeople currently known

This list is based on the Basketmakers’ Association membership list, where they indicate they accept commissions and are believed to be active.

 

Other information

While chair caning as a craft is still viable, it has a declining number of practitioners and requires oversight and support. For this reason it has been classified as ‘endangered’.

There is no evidence of any person currently receiving a formal training to achieve the full range of skills required by a chair caner with the ability to re-cane complex furniture without supervision. However, there is no evidence of there ever having been formal apprenticeship schemes – the craft was traditionally taught through informal ‘bench top’ training. Many people learn on short courses such as those at West Dean and, although not a systematic training, they become proficient with good supervision and tuition. When they meet something new they come back. There are also many who are self-taught from publications, internet etc. without having been in contact with a skilled chair caner and, as a consequence, their work is generally not satisfactory.

There are probably 21-50 professional chair caners (calculated from an analysis of the Basketmakers’ Association membership list), with perhaps another 201-500 who have achieved the basic skills to re-cane a simple chair, either through training or being self- taught from publications, internet etc. There are also many ‘hobbyists’ who have only very basic skills.

 

References

  • Johnson, Kay, Elton Barratt, Olivia, Butcher, Mary. (1988). Chair Seating – techniques in Cane, Rush, Willow and Cords. (ISBN 0-85219-736-5)
  • Holdstock, Ricky. (1993). Seat Weaving. (ISBN 0-946819-46-7)
  • Broan, David and Freda. (1981). Cane and Rush Seating. (ISBN 0-900873-41-8)
  • Widess, Jim. (2005). The Complete Guide to Chair Seating. (ISBN 978-1-57900-613-9)
  • Brian Crossley