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Nine new grants awarded to help save endangered crafts from extinction

Monica Cass. Photo copyright Katherine Mager.

Monica Cass weaving a ‘tau tray’ using skeined willow in Norfolk. Photo copyright Katherine Mager.

A chair seater, a concertina maker and a brick and tile maker are among the recipients of the latest round of grants awarded to help safeguard some of the UK’s most endangered craft skills.

The Heritage Crafts Association, which is due to publish the third edition of its groundbreaking HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts in May, has awarded a further nine grants from its Endangered Crafts Fund, which was launched in 2019 to increase the likelihood of endangered crafts surviving into the next generation.

This round of the HCA Endangered Crafts Fund has been offered with support from the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Dulverton Trust, the Sussex Heritage Trust, Allchurches Trust, the Radcliffe Trust and the Swire Charitable Trust. The nine successful recipients are:

  • Duncan Berry, from West Sussex, to buy tools to enable him to pass on his skills as a flint waller.
  • Ben Bosence, from East Sussex, to develop and make bricks and tiles from waste clay that has been excavated locally.
  • Monica Cass, from Norwich, to train a chair seat weaver in skeined willow techniques, and document the process.
  • Collette Davies, from Monmouth, to help revive the craft of lipwork straw basketry.
  • Tom Frith-Powell, from Cumbria, to develop a gelatine sized paper as part of his commercial handmade papermaking charity.
  • Bob Green, from Brighton, to buy tools to enable him to develop and pass on his skills as a flint waller.
  • Jake Middleton-Metcalf, from Buckinghamshire, to be trained in making the critical working components of the English system concertina.
  • Tony Millyard, from Northamptonshire, to pass on flute making skills and to develop a new model of flute.
  • Dominic Parrette, from East Sussex, to build shave horses to allow him to teach trainees how to make Sussex trug and Devon stave baskets.
A hand made Anglo-German Concertina by Jake Middleton-Metcalfe. Photo copyright Jake Middleton-Metcalfe.

A hand made Anglo-German Concertina by Jake Middleton-Metcalfe. Photo copyright Jake Middleton-Metcalfe.

These nine projects follow 18 awarded in previous rounds, covering endangered crafts such as scissor making, sail making, damask weaving, boot tree making, cockle basket making, folding knife making, neon bending, coracle making, fan making and swill basket making, coppersmithing, withy pot making, disappearing fore-edge painting, plane making and kishie basket making.

As usual the fund was oversubscribed, and the HCA hopes to work with many of the unsuccessful candidates to identify other funding and support opportunities.

HCA Endangered Crafts Officer Mary Lewis said:

“The impact of COVID-19 in the last twelve months has only compounded the pressures on those at-risk craft skills that were already on the verge of being lost, but have so much to offer a post-COVID future, as productive and fulfilling ways to rebuild a sustainable economy. These projects will realise some of that potential.”

The Endangered Crafts Fund has been funded through generous donations from organisations including Garfield Weston Foundation, the Dulverton Trust, the Sussex Heritage Trust, Allchurches Trust, the Radcliffe Trust, as well as individuals who have donated sums from £5 right up to several thousands of pounds. The forthcoming 2021 edition of the HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts is funded by the Pilgrim Trust.

The HCA continues to seek further donations to save even more of Britain’s most endangered crafts from oblivion. Donations are welcome at any time.

Chair seating & caning

Currently viable crafts

 

Chair seating & caning

 

The making and repair of chair seats using cane, rush, willow, straw or cords.

 

Status Currently viable
Historic area of significance
Area currently practised
Origin in the UK 17th century

 

History

Chair seats can be made from a wide variety of materials. The primary material within chair seating is cane, but other materials such as rush (from the common bulrush), straw-wrapped rush, seagrass, and Danish cord 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.

Chair caning 

The 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.

The craft was taken by immigrants to USA in late 17th century and grew to be a very major industry in 18th and 19th Centuries.  In Europe the main centres were Germany, France and the Austro Hungarian Empire where Thonet built large factories from 1860 onwards producing vast quantities of caned furniture exported around the world.

 

Techniques

Rush

  • The rush is dampened and allowed to mellow for a few hours.
  • 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.
  • The pockets which have formed on the underside are stuffed with dry rush.
  • Straw-wrapped rush
  • 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

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

Danish Cord

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

Cane

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

Cane variations

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

  • 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.

Caning 

  • Market issues: Today, the craft of chair caning in the UK is almost 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

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

 

Other information

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 and 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)