|Chair used by John Ruskin when a child|
Chair Caning has been practiced as a craft in the UK since the late 17th century when it was - and still is – associated with the craft of basketmaking. Today the craft concentrates on restoration with virtually no new caned furniture using the traditional techniques.
The material used is an outer layer (similar to bark) of the branches of a species of the Rattan Palm tree growing in the rain forests of the Far East, principally Indonesia, which unusually climbs in the forests looking for light. Each branch can grow up to 200 metres long and is of constant diameter.
The original technique of chair caning uses a hand prepared single strand of cane woven through holes around the panel to be caned, in six distinct stages to create a pattern ‘the six way pattern’ which is used in almost all caned panels. This pattern is known to have been in use from as early as around 200BC. Caned panels are used mainly on chair seats (also their arms and backs) and to a much lesser extent on other types of furniture.
|Part of a chair back|
Seven different widths of cane are available, the exact width used being dependant on the spacing of holes in the panel to gave the right balance of ‘cane to fresh air’ – not too flimsy and not too crude.
Caned furniture responded to changes in fashion and in the first period, 1670 to 1720, chairs had caned seats and very high caned backs. Prior to this, seats were in leather, wood or upholstered. The attraction of caned furniture at the time was that it was light in weight, easily cleaned and did not harbour vermin - unlike upholstery.
The next period of use was the Regency period from around 1790 to 1820 when cushions were typically used on the seat.
Until this time, most furniture in the UK was made in London, in and around the area known as St. Paul’s Church Yard. However with improvements in transport and the ready availability of wood and Windsor chair making skills, manufacture of virtually all caned furniture in the UK moved to the High Wycombe area. Caned furniture made here progressed in the period 1830 up to the First World War from being a cottage industry to major factory manufacture with many hundreds of thousands of items being made - but caning remained as a hand craft.
There was a major development in Europe around 1850 when Michael Thonet (born in Germany but working in Austria), developed the ability to bend solid wood and in came a major source of cheap durable bentwood furniture, most of which had caned seats and other caned panels. Each of his five factories had around 300 chair caners and the business made many millions of caned chairs, exported around the world in a flat pack format.
After the Second World War, the only furniture in Europe using cane was by Scandinavian designers who also utilised the fashion for teak frames. However a technique which did not take off in the UK or Europe was the use of machine woven cane, developed in the USA in the mid 19th century when two major developments took place. First was the ability to cut the outer layer off a branch by machine whilst preserving intact the central core and second, the machine weaving of a roll of cane up to 36 inches wide (90 cm). This material is mechanically attached to the panel frame in a groove and locked into place with a spline pressed into the groove. Virtually all new caned furniture now uses this technique.
Today, the craft of chair caning by hand is used to restore furniture of all periods from the very first caned chairs made in Europe in the late 17th century to the modern machine woven cane seats. However, the traditional techniques are now being used on other applications.