The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Chair seating

 

The making and repair of chair seats using rush, willow, straw or cords. For the use of cane, see the separate entry for chair caning.

 

Status Endangered
Craft category  Wood; Straw; Plant fibre
Historic area of significance
Area currently practised
Origin in the UK  17th century
Minimum no. of craftspeople required  21-50 (general) / 6-10 (skeined willow)
Current no. of trainees  11-20? (general) / 0 (skeined willow) (See ‘Other information for further details)
Current no. of skilled craftspeople  Approx. 100 (general) / 1-5 (skeined willow) (See ‘Other information for further details)
Current total no. of craftspeople  101-200 (see ‘Other information’ for further details)

 

History

Chair seats can be made from a wide variety of materials. The primary material within chair seating is cane (see the separate entry for chair caning), but other materials such as rush (from the common bulrush), straw-wrapped rush, seagrass, Danish cord and skeined willow are also used.

Rush seated chairs, either ladder back or spindle back, were produced by wood turners for common use in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in many parts of England. The tradition was strongly associated with the southern counties and home counties, in particular Buckinghamshire, with chair making centred in and around High Wycombe. The North West (Cheshire, Lancashire, Cumbria) produced great quantities in the of rush seated chairs in the nineteenth century. Regional variation in style could identify the place of origin of a particular chair. William Morris, founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, produced the Sussex range of rush seated chairs for many years through his firm Morris and Company.

Rush seating was considered a lowly trade, and in the nineteenth century was carried out by itinerant workers. Prior to that the seating was undertaken by home-based workers.

 

Techniques

Rush

  1. The rush is dampened and allowed to mellow for a few hours.
  2. Strands are twined to give coils of even diameter, which are then worked in sequence over and under the seat rails to form a solid seat.
  3. The pockets which have formed on the underside are stuffed with dry rush.
  4. Straw-wrapped rush
  5. There are some rare examples of chairs where the rush coils have been overwrapped with straw. This is worked simultaneously with coiling the rush.

Seagrass

  1. Seagrass is wrapped around round a frame to form the warp.
  2. The weft is woven – there is a variety of patterns.

Danish Cord

  1. The warp is worked from front rail to back rail, and is held on the inside of the rail by ‘L’ shaped nails.
  2. Double strands of cord are woven from side to side through the cords already in place on the seat frame.

Skeined Willow

  1. A willow rod is split into three or four strands.
  2. The inside pith is shaved off.
  3. The shaved willow is ‘uprighted’, i.e. pulled between blades to produce a strip of a uniform width.
  4. The skeins are woven to form a solid seat

 

Local forms

 

Sub-crafts

  • rush seating
  • seagrass seating
  • straw seating
  • whole willow seating
  • skeined willow seating
  • Danish cord (paper cord) seating

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Market issues: Rush seating has an area of demand with the scope of furniture restoration, and currently “brown” furniture is not popular.
  • Market issues: There is the question of the cost of repair weighed against the value of the finished article, and unless the item has a certain amount of sentimental value the restoration can be deemed too expensive.
  • Market issues: There is, however, at the moment, an inclination towards re-cycling and a degree of willingness to try to repair rather than discard. More modern furniture is now coming up for restoration. Along with a current trend which favours ‘natural’ materials, there is a slight increase in the demand for chair seating skills.
  • Market issues: A job can be considered uneconomic when the cost of transport or carriage costs are factored in.
  • Skills issues: The matter of finding a craftsperson with the necessary skills within a given area can be frustrating, but searching online is a great advantage here.
  • Perception of the craft/Market issues: As is the case with other crafts, the skill of chair seating is undervalued, and generally the hourly rate poor.
  • Training issues: There are no accredited courses for teaching chair seating. A few tutors are listed by the Basketmakers’ Association, but workshops are few and far between, and those learning the skill are most likely to be working on a one-off piece of their own.
  • Training issues: There are few tutors, and in order to learn chair seating a keen student may have to seek out tuition on a one-to-one basis, or be willing to travel a great distance to attend a shot workshop.
  • Training issues: Chair seating could also be considered a category of upholstery. In the past there have been instances of chair seating being taught as part of Adult Education evening classes, but very much on a ‘one-off’ basis with the student having one project to complete and no interest is extending his/her study to a more advanced level.

 

Support organisations

Craftspeople currently known

A list of chair seaters can be found on the website of the Basketmakers’ Association

Those known to work in skeined willow are:

 

Other information

Status: Skeined willow seating could be seen as critically endangered.

Current number of trainees: There are no accredited courses for teaching chair seating. A few tutors are listed by the Basketmakers’ Association, but workshops are few and far between, and those learning the skill are most likely to be working on a one-off piece of their own.

Current number of skilled craftspeople: Information gathered from the Basketmakers’ Association membership list would indicate those currently practising falls into the 101-200 category, but very much at the lower end of the range. Of this group, the numbers who run a business or undertake commissions (and are therefore the assumed to be more skilled) falls into the lower part of the 51-100 range. For skeined willow seating, the number of skilled craftspeople is probably in the region of 1-5, with the proviso that this type of work has not been undertaken recently.

Total number of craftspeople: It is difficult to separate those practising the stated varieties of chair seating, whilst excluding those who also practise chair caning. Chair caning could be looked upon as the ‘primary’ chair seating discipline, and many chairs eaters are able to undertake a variety of disciplines. Based on the numbers who do rush seating the total number is just over 100. Some rush seating may also be carried out by basketmakers who use rush.

 

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)