Orkney chair making
The making of ‘Orkney chairs’, a type of chair with a wooden base and a straw back.
|Craft category||Wood; Straw|
|Historic area of significance||Orkney Islands|
|Area currently practised||Orkney Islands|
|Origin in the UK|
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It is not known when Orkney chairs were first made, but it is possible to chart how they evolved from simple stools to the full blown chair associated with the islands today.
Orkney has no indigenous trees so wood was in scarce supply on the islands, so furniture and other household items were made from the leftover straw from the black oats grown to feed livestock. The early stools were made almost entirely of straw, with the only wood being used in the feet. Gradually wood (usually driftwood) was used to form the base of the chair, although the basic design was still that of a stool covered in straw. Eventually a low woven straw back was added, and later still hoods were added to the chairs to keep out the draughts and sometimes a drawer was added under the seat.
Until the 1890s, Orkney chairs were made for use by the maker’s own family or to be sold within a small local market. However, the Arts and Crafts movement and the foundation of the Scottish Home Industries Association increased the interest in the traditional hand crafts of Scotland. At this time, a Mr David Kirkness, a joiner of Kirkwall, began to produce four standardised versions of the traditional Orkney chair. By creating standard versions he was able to increase his output, and the straw backs were stitched by outworkers. It is estimated he made about 400 chairs per year, far more than other makers. The new publicity and increased output led to the Orkney chair becoming a must-have item of the upper classes.
Today, locally grown straw is still used to make the backs of the chairs, which still have to be stitched by hand. The chair frames, originally made from driftwood, are now more often made from the best quality wood available. New designs are continually evolving to include benches, rocket chairs and fan-backed chairs.
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