Antique Seating: What Are You Sitting On?

Antiques very often have seating material that is—well you know— that woven stuff that comes in old chair seats. It’s not fabric, it’s not leather, it’s not cowhide, it’s . . . What exactly is it? That depends, of course, but first determine what it is not.

More likely than not, it is not bamboo. Bamboo is what old fishing poles look like, brownish with large segments and obvious growth joints every 10 inches or so. Some furniture is made of bamboo that is bent to shape and wrapped with natural fiber binding or leather strips to secure the joints, but usually, the seating portion is upholstered or has a loose cushion on it because bamboo is not very comfortable. So unless you are sitting in a bamboo chair, you don’t have a bamboo seat.

What it also probably isn’t is rattan. Rattan is the stem of a type of tropical palm tree most often found in commercial quantities in Borneo. The stem has its leaves removed and the outer skin scraped off. It can then be bent to shape to make furniture. Larger pieces are steam bent, and smaller ones are merely soaked to provide flexibility. Larger pieces of rattan look like bamboo with the hard outer shell removed. Rattan furniture closely resembles bamboo furniture. It also usually has wrapped joints, but in newer pieces, the wrapping is often plastic made to look like leather or fiber and actually conceals a nailed or screwed joint. Seating in rattan closely follows the pattern of seating in bamboo furniture.

Perhaps it’s wicker. Perhaps. Wicker furniture has been around for centuries, and some of it is quite sturdy. Old wicker is made of small diameter (1/4 inch or less) but long lengths of willow or small rattan palms. These lengths are wrapped around a structural frame of maple or birch to create the impression of a woven piece of furniture, which often features elaborate embellishments made of individual stems rolled or curled in patterns.

Usually, only true wicker chairs like this have wicker seats.

This type of wicker furniture is all hand made and is relatively expensive. On the other hand is “paper” wicker. This is a late-19th-century invention of brown craft paper wrapped tightly around a wire core and can be woven on a special loom in a factory, which accounts for the proliferation of Victorian wicker around the turn of the 20th century. But again, wicker is almost never used as seating material except in a wicker piece of furniture.

Next is rush. Rush is a seating material made by twisting some substance into long strands of about the same diameter as wicker. It is then woven in a pattern around the top stretchers of a chair seat, creating a type of suspension seat with no wood visible around it. In some chairs, it is woven around a flat wood frame that sits inside another frame in the chair. Rush, like wicker, comes in two basic varieties. The original form was made of very tightly twisted, wet cattail leaves and gets very brittle after a number of years. This is called “natural” or “cattail” rush. The newer version, euphemistically called “fiber” rush, is similar to paper wicker in that it is essentially twisted brown or variegated craft paper but without the wire core. It usually requires a top coating of some sort to protect it from moisture. Many newer pieces of furniture imported from the Far East are once again appearing with natural rush in the seats.

The seat of this chair is made of twisted rush woven in the standard four-section pattern.

Cane is just that—cane. It is the outer skin of cane cut in very thin flat strips that can be woven almost like fabric to make a seat surface. In woven form, it is very durable and has been known to last centuries. An earlier form of cane seating is called “seven strand hand cane,” “hand cane” or “hole cane.” After soaking in glycerin or water, seven (more or less) individual strands are woven in and out of holes drilled through the wood of the seat, creating any number of patterns. If you turn the chair upside down, you can see the loops of cane under the seat going from hole to hole. The most common pattern has a series of octagonal-shaped holes in the material. After installation and drying, the cane can be stained and finished to match the chair or to match other older seats within the same set. This type of handwork is relatively expensive, and fewer people in the U.S. do it every year. It is a dying art here but is still common in European-produced furniture.

On the left is a 19th-century chair seat made of hand cane woven through holes in the seat. With the chair turned upside down (right), it is easy to see the individual loops of the cane through the seat.

Another type of cane is called “sheet cane” or “pressed cane.” This comes from the manufacturer (in the Far East) in prewoven sheets in a variety of styles and sizes and is installed in a groove cut near the edge of the seat. It is worked wet after soaking awhile so that as it dries, it becomes very tight and strong across the seat opening. It is held in place by a glued-in border called reed spline.

Pressed cane is easily identified by the reed spline that holds the woven cane into a groove in the seat.

Since it has no holes drilled through the seat, it leaves a stronger seat frame than does hole cane. It, too, can be finished to match something else. The newest twist in cane seating in inexpensive furniture is paper cane. It looks exactly like natural cane except it is made of woven flat strips of paper embedded with a nylon cord to give it strength and is finished to look like real cane.

So what do you have in your chairs?

WorthPoint — the premier Web site for art, antiques and collectibles

– Fred Taylor is the American Furniture Worthologist and an expert in furniture restoration. He’s published numerous articles on antiques on WorthPoint and in “Antique Trader,” “Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine,” “Northeast Magazine, “Victorian Decorating and Lifestyles,” “Professional Refinishing” and “The Antique Shoppe Newspaper.” Read more about Fred on his Worthologist profile, and check out his book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” and Fred and Gail Taylor’sDVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture” on their very informative Web site, Furniture Detective.

Other articles by Fred Taylor:

Identifying Wood Species—Part I

Identifying Wood Species—Part II

Identifying Wood Species—Part III

A Fortune from the Kitchen Table

Understanding Antiques—the Arts and Crafts Movement

Understanding Antiques—the Arts and Crafts Movement Pt. 2

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