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|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||1-5|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees||0|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
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 does not have enough indigenous trees to supply a furniture making industry, so furniture and other household items were made from reclaimed wood or driftwood, along with 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 The chair frames, originally made from driftwood, are now more often made from the best quality wood available.
The making of the frame of an Orkney chair is a fairly skilled job and consists of making about 26 separate components. The main joint used to make the frame is a mortice and tennon joint; this is also combined with shaping various components and sometimes a drawer is required to be made and fitted. The technique used to stitch the back is very similar to techniques used in coiled basket making where each row is stitched onto the one below. Differing from basket making, each row is tied onto the chair uprights before being folded back onto itself to start the next row. The needle is angled in various ways while stitching to shape the back. The oat staw used for the chair backs is harvested using traditional methods. It is either cut with a scythe or binder.
Most of the current chair makers have diversified from making just traditional style chairs to make more contemporary designs
- Straw work
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Craftspeople currently known
- Reynolds, Rachel, (2012) The Orkney Chair (Potter, Wright and Webb)
- Cotton, Bernard, Scottish Vernacular Furniture
- Park, Jeanette A, Simmans, Sookans and Straw Backed Chairs