History of Cane Seating


The cane used for seating comes from rattans, jungle creepers. There are about 1600 species in 14 genera, but the ones we are interested in come from the Calamus and Daemonoropos genera. These plants grow in the far east, mostly the Malay peninsula, Indonesia and the Philippines, and can reach up to 500ft (150m) long. The thickness varies (although it tends to be constant throughout the length of one plant) from a few millimetres to the thickness of a man's arm. Rattans also grow in West Africa, but for seating purposes these are not as good. Commercial cultivation is increasing, but as yet there is not enough of it to satisfy demand, and most of our cane still comes from wild plants, which are becoming endangered due to deforestation and uncontrolled exploitation.


Rattans grow vertically up to 2-3ft (60-90cm) and then they put out ferocious barbed tendrils to catch hold of nearby plants. These tendrils grow from the tips of the leaves which sport nasty spikes underneath. Like some horror from a 1950s 'B' movie, this vicious plant supplies delicate seats for members of even the world's politest societies!


Oddly enough the locals don't rush out in gleeful droves to volunteer for rattan harvesting: they seem strangely reluctant and only take on the job when no alternative paid work is available. (I'd love to hear from anyone with first-hand knowledge of the process of rattan-harvesting! Please email if you know anything from your own experience, or have photos.) Harvesters wear thick leather gloves and hack through the vines with sharp axes about 3ft (90cm) above ground level, leaving enough so that new growth will be ready for cutting in 6 or 7 years. Leaving the cut vines where they hang, the workers return a few days later when they will have dried out sufficiently so that the outer bark will be coming loose. The brave workers pull the vine through a notch in a tree, thus stripping off the bark and thorns. Now and again some poor chap will have to climb into the trees to release a vine that's got stuck too firmly by its thorns. (And you thought gathering wild brambles was dangerous work!)


The nasty bit is now over, but there's lots more to be done. The part we use for seating is the hard, glossy, impervious inner bark which covers the central pith. The cane is cut into lengths of 12-30ft (2.5-9m) and tied into bundles which have to be processed quickly before the centre goes bad. Curing involves sulphuration to destroy fungi and insects. Grading has to be done, for quality and diameter: checks are done for smoothness, colour and length between leaf nodes. A machine separates the bark (for seating) from the inner core (centre cane, used extensively for basketwork and rattan furniture). The inner bark is split and trimmed into flat strips about 1.5mm thick. You'd now recognise this at last as seating cane. All that has to be done now is a final trimming for uniform thickness and width.


Although not as ancient a method of seat making as rushing, cane seating has a long and interesting history. It probably originated in China or India where the raw materials were easily available, and was certainly used in the far east for a long time before its introduction into Europe. 


In the late 17th century the fine furniture makers of Portugal introduced cane seating, and Catherine of Braganza, the consort of Britain's King Charles II, probably brought cane seats to Britain. They soon became very fashionable and were exported in large numbers to the American and other colonies.


At first French and Dutch weavers went to London but soon the locals picked up the skills and a thriving industry grew up. After the great fire of London in 1666 these chairs really took off as houses were rebuilt bigger and roomier than before, requiring more delicate and attractive furniture.


In time the early simple, comfortable chairs gave way to elaborately decorated and ornately carved confections, stiff and uncomfortable to sit on, but doubtless most impressive to look at. Upholsterers worried about going out of business as the popularity of cane seating grew, and they unsuccessfully petitioned Parliament to ban the import and manufacture of cane chairs!


All fashions have their limits, and by the end of the century, by which time cane seat backs had reached nearly 4ft (1.21m) in height above the seat, things were getting really silly and gradually their popularity faded. They continued to be made however, and many interesting examples can be found in antique shops and museums.


In the mid 19th century Michael Thonet (1796-1871) invented the bentwood chair after much experimenting between 1830-1842: he opened a factory in Vienna under Prince Metternich's patronage. In 1851 he exhibited at the Great Exhibition in London and his bentwood cane seated chairs really took off and were exported worldwide including the US and Australia. By the time of his death the factory was making 400,000 pieces per year.


Why are so many old cane chairs found today with a piece of plywood nailed over the seat? My impression had always been that people simply didn't know how to recane them, or couldn't afford to have it done, and certainly many of these examples would have been the result of this, but there's also the suggestion that in Victorian times it was considered unhealthy to slouch in a chair (though can you really slouch in a cane chair anyway?) and parents, for the ultimate benefit of their children, covered the comfy cane seat with a hard, uncomfortable surface in order that their offspring should grow up strong and straight and not soft. The other, more prosaic explanation for the hard seats is that during both World Wars it was no longer possible to import cane, which grows exclusively in the far east. People needed their chairs, and simply did what they could to enable them to keep using them. Whatever. Certainly there are many of these covered seats about, and it's not too hard for us to restore them.


In the 1850s an American, Cyrus Wakefield, experimented with centre cane, which had been thrown away until then, and perfected a method of making furniture with it. Another American, Gardiner A. Watkins, was probably responsible for the invention of the machine for weaving cane into panels. This is also sometimes known as 'rattan webbing' and appears under this name in our mail order section.


In Germany in 1925 Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breur designed tubular steel chairs with machine-made cane seats, and these have over the years become a design classic. In the 1960s and 70s Habitat marketed their own version of the Bauhaus chair, and many people now have a set of these elegant tubular steel, caned chairs in their homes. Since the seats and backs are fixed to the framework with screws, it's easy enough to remove them, so they can be sent to us in the post for restoration work. 


During World War II no cane could be imported from the far east and supplies dried up, and only since the 1950s has interest in cane seating been revived. Today these chairs are as popular as they have ever been - robust, attractive, comfortable without being too soft, lightweight and versatile - there's nothing quite like a cane chair!

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