If you prefer to begin with THE STORY OF FURNITURE, click on:
About 4,000 B.C.,
man began to weave nature’s pliant woody plants
into baskets to carry burdens, serve foods and cradle babies.
This became a universal culture known as WICKER;
even though there is no plant or grass called ‘wicker‘.
(In Swedish, wika means ‘to bend’, vikker means willow.)
This post is about NATURAL wicker furniture—
made of woven willow, rush, reed, rattan and other pliant woody plants.
But know that colorful all weather wicker furniture
made of resin, vinyl or high density polyethylene
woven on frames of aluminum (which doesn’t rust)
is also available.
Natural wicker stools, chests, baskets and even wicker sandals were found in Tutankhamen’s tomb. Diverse styles of natural wicker furniture and accessories continue to be made globally.
NATURAL WICKER FURNITURE
Pliant branches from a species of deciduous trees and shrubs growing in temperate climates and known for diverse application for basketry and wickerwork.
A grass-like marsh plant having pliant, hollow or pithy stems. Rush was used in medieval times as a covering for stone floors, baskets, mats and chair seats. The thinner the rush and the more it’s twisted, the finer the finished product.
A tall grass with straight-slender leaves and growing in marshland.
A variety of climbing palm with long, tough slender solid core stems used for wickerwork.
Split stems of rattan, called cane, have been used since the mid-17th Century for interwoven chair seats and backs.
Bamboo is a rapidly growing tree — known to grow 16 inches in one day in tropical climates. Bamboo is often the structural wood component for woven wicker furniture. It has slender, woody, hollow stems with well-marked joints or nodes.
Bamboo furniture originally was simple and described as “rather rickety”. In the 18th Century the influence of bamboo furniture from the Far East spread and the ‘look of bamboo’ was simulated by turning hard woods on a lathe. Replicated bamboo furniture became very popular in Europe and the United States.
Because of its’ rapid and sustainable growth, bamboo is increasingly used for cutting boards, kitchen counters, hardwood floors and as a textile fiber. Soft shoots of new bamboo growth are savored as a vegetable.
For centuries, plants and grasses from Italy’s Macerata region were harvested for wicker furniture, handbags and baskets. Today, this fertile land is more productive for growing food and sunflowers for oil. But the tradition of artisan production of wicker furniture has lingered with the skilled craftsmen—who must now import natural raw materials —usually from Pacific Rim nations.
PRODUCTION OF NATURAL WICKER FURNITURE:
Wicker furniture is currently made in countries having a strong tradition in techniques of construction and weaving natural materials. Bamboo, rattan and some hardwoods provide structural components for woven wicker furniture. Bamboo and rattan is joined with nails because mortise and tenon joinery is not possible for these woods.
A lot of natural wicker furniture is also made with structural components of wrought iron and/or tubular steel.
I visited a renowned manufacturer of wicker furniture in the Macerata region of Italy and was amazed by the variety of their imported natural materials.
Bamboo and rattan—for sturdy furniture frames.
Flexible willow—for weaving.
Fine willows—for wrapping nailed joints.
Bamboo —bent by heat and pressure.
Steam is used to soften many woods for bending—but because bamboo has a high moisture content, it can be held in a vice while craftsmen use heat and brute strength to bend bamboo corresponding to a template.
Bamboo poles are measured, cut and nailed together as furniture frames.
Nail heads are covered with wood-fill and
joints are wrapped with strips of willow for a refined look.
A sofa takes shape as flexible willow is woven and pulled tightly through vertical bamboo ribs securely attached to the base frame. New lengths of willow are added periodically and endings are tucked-in and clipped in a neat, secure manner.
The craftsman’s hands move with rhythm, speed and dexterity
— reminding me of how warp and woof interlocks on a loom.
Protruding fibers are singed with a torch and the furniture is wetted-down to tighten as it dries. The finished furniture is spray-painted to specification— for international destinations.
Cane is the hollow, jointed stem of a tall grass
as bamboo, sugar cane or the split-stem of a palm as rattan.
Since the mid-17th Century,
cane has been interwoven for chair-backs and seats.
Hand-caning used to be an inexpensive way to ‘seat’ a chair.
Today, ‘skilled-labor’ hand-caning— is very costly.
Machine-caning, woven by the yard,
is popular for today’s chair-backs and seats.
In Venice, I visited a shop specializing in repairing and restoring rush and cane seats for antique furniture. Their major clients were European art galleries and museums.
After removing worn caning, hand carved pegs are placed into holes around the entire perimeter edge of a chair seat. Strips of cane, kept wet as they’re pulled and wrapped around the pegs–are woven horizontally, vertically, and diagonally. Care is taken that thin flat pieces of cane do not twist and are not pulled too tightly.
Strips of cane are joined only at edges where a finishing strip of cane is whipped under and over secure tapered pegs—and hammered back into the hole. The woven cane shrinks as it dries to provide a firm and comfortable seat.
Pat Breen: EYEWITNESS TO QUALITY
My next post: JUDGING THE QUALITY OF NATURAL WICKER FURNITURE