Cane History

To understand the history of Cane furniture in England, you must first look at the history of the chair: The history of furniture is a combination of function and fashion.
Sources – Surviving pieces, inventories and pictorial.

Seating (not counting furniture dating the Roman occupation) in Britain up to the Middle Ages was on stools and benches.
The stools were of Jointed construction; made secure using Willow pegs to lock the joints together. Three legged stools are the earliest and the stool was made by a Joiner and any decoration carved by a Carpenter. As a guide to early stools, this means that each is as individual as the people who made it – no two alike without mechanised techniques of reproduction.
A Chair was a sign of status – in terms of wealth and position - and a wealthy household might only have one chair. These were solid, heavy, oak, and incorporated a back and arms onto a storage chest, giving a solid base. Late C15th chairs with arms were given legs like a stool with heavy stretchers close to the ground (not always a sign that the chairs legs have been cut down!).
The development of the “Back stool” was an upward projection of the back legs with a flat board between them. (Show) chairs have back legs to top all in one piece.
Comfort in C16th and C17th was provided by cushions. Upholstered furniture begins from late Elizabethan (1558 – 1603). Furniture, especially a chair, might be preserved within a family for generations.

A woven cane pattern on furniture was indigenous to Indonesia and Malaysia, where the Rattan Palm grows, and exported from there to India. Decorative and functional, it makes light and airy furniture in a hot and humid climate.
The C17th Dutch colonisation of the Far East introduced this style to Europe, where craftsmen learnt this skill and added it to their own traditions. Spilt Willow skeins had been traditionally used for seating in a manner similar to close caning.
In England, imported pieces were only known from the 1600s. Jacobean (James 1st 1603 – 1625) chairs had long slender cane panels in the backs of heavy chairs with turned legs and sometimes caned seats as well.
This is the period where traditionally furniture is described as changing from an Oak dominated market to the lighter, beautifully figured and easily carved Walnut. Of course this is fashion and vernacular furniture would probably have remained made of oak or locally available timbers.

Historical events which caused cane furniture to come into fashion in England, and then fall into decline before being take up again by the Victorians:
1660 The Restoration of the Monarchy – Charles II brought with him the influences of great European styles and by his marriage to Catherine of Braganza, Indian styles. Her dowry included Bombay from the Portuguese colonies, He was recorded to have an Indian chair of elaborately carved ebony with a caned seat.
1666 The Great Fire of London – The destruction of entire households and their possessions created a huge market for new furniture and furnishings, Flemish (Huguenot) Weavers and Dutch caners migrated into England to help meet the demand for replacements. Of course, these were in the newest styles.
By the 1670s, sets of 8 Beechwood or Walnut chairs (6 plain and 2 armchairs) with caned seats and panels were in vogue.
1685 Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes – This had given protection to Protestants in within Catholic France. Consequently a great number of Protestant furniture makers, glassworkers and weavers made their way to England and Holland.
1689 William of Orange (William & Mary) – This confirmed Dutch influence on all fashions, including household furnishings. Caned panels became common on furniture such as daybeds and tables, as well as chairs.
1710 – 1830 The Cabriole leg and Mahogany - Mahogany was first used in its native America, but the Old World species was also taken up by European craftsmen; light in weight compared to oak, well coloured, elegant and easy to carve.
Turned legs were the norm until 1680s, when the Cabriole leg was introduced from France to Holland, and thus into England. This construction did away with the need for the stretchers between the legs and fashion dictated the need for lightly used ‘Salon’ chairs. This and the use of mahogany, walnut and beech created a new, lighter elegance in furniture, seen in the works of Chippendale, Hepplewhite and Sheraton.
Many of the fashionable styles were suited to upholstered seats rather than cane, although it was used for decorative back panels and Neo-classical furniture.
In the 1780s – A fashion for Japanese lacquered pieces which were made by small firms in London and finished with finely caned seats.
1789 French Revolution – The wholesale clearance of Noble households brought fine and very decorative French furniture at low prices from dealers into the wealthy homes of England, introducing a wide range of desirable styles to be copied for the English market. In England cane was used for large Berger suites of a settle and 2 deep-seated armchairs with caned seats, arm panels and backs.
The demand for cane furniture as a staple though, declined until the Victorian period.
1851 Thonet and Bentwood Chairs - Michel Thonet’s mass production techniques of steaming Beech to allow the wood to be bent into curves won acclaim at the Great Exhibition of 1851. A native of Vienna, he changed the face of European public seating. While commercial chairs for restaurants, etc. had circular caned seats and Bentwood backs, the domestic chairs also had caned back panels.
1850s Industrial Revolution - Steam driven machinery changed many furniture production techniques and speeded up the process allowing chairs to become easily and cheaply available to more people.
It was the mechanisation of Lace-making that turned many women out-workers to replace Lace-making with Caning as their cottage industry.

Chair construction and cane panels
Until the late Victorian period, chair parts were created piecemeal, by hand, by different workers, often from different woods for specific parts of the chair, and built up in workshops. (Windsor chair = Beech bentwood, Elm seat and yew legs (someone turns rails, someone makes legs, someone drills the holes in the rails, etc.)
The caning holes in the seat rails were therefore made before the construction of the chairs – which explains why so many have different numbers of holes along the side, holes are unevenly spaced, and even apparent sets or pairs may have different numbers of holes! Holes were drilled by hand until about 1870, with mechanical drilling in widespread use by the 1890s.
The working pattern appears to have been: Men made the chairs in workshops, men stripped the imported whole cane into skeins of the different widths for weaving – the quality was variable, and the actual caning was done at home by women and children over the age of 7years; the finished items being collected 6 at a time to be taken to be sold.
By the end of the C19th, the preparation of cane had improved and cane strips were imported from Indonesia where a mechanical stripping process had been developed.
Cane (and Rushing) workshops developed alongside the Furniture workshops with girls starting a 3 year apprenticeship at the age of 12. They were paid by piecework, which varied according to their skills and thus the quality of furniture upon which they were allowed to work.
Cane panels were used extensively on Nursery furniture at this point and many of the commonly available Bedroom or Side chairs date from this period. Trapezium shaped seats became popular, earlier examples are often bow-fronted. The practice of ‘Beading’ – attaching a strip of wide cane to the edges of the seat to cover the holes – was not in use before 1850. This was possibly to neaten the ‘look’ on chairs where holes were more widely spaced than previously.
During the Edwardian period many of the most popular furniture styles of the last 300 years were plundered and copied using modern manufacturing techniques. Thus, the Cabriole leg remained popular, featuring heavily on occasional chairs that might have a caned or an upholstered seat, and Berger suites were larger and heavier than their originals but retained cane panelling.
World War 1 – Many skilled trades were lost as we lost most of the men of one generation. This is where the tradition of Blind caners comes from as may disabled veterans were re-trained to make a living in the related skills of Caning and Basketry.
Word War 2 – By now Caning, as a skill, was in decline. The knowledge base had largely died out leaving a few itinerant Caners existing on repair work.
Fashions had changed again and Furniture was mass produced and often imported.

Today we have the 1970s Crafts revival to thank for saving many of our traditional crafts and skills and there are quite a few Craftworks making a living or part of one repairing old, much loved furniture and reviving the unloved into new homes.

The Material.
Rattan Cane: Looks a bit like a thorny, climbing bamboo but is a member of the Palm family and so has a solid rather than a hollow stem. Horrible to process, it has to be harvested and the outer heavily thorned bark stripped away to reveal the shiny inner bark from which the cane strips are taken. This is then sanded to remove most of the rough leaf nodes – though enough remains to give the cane strip a ‘running’ and a ‘snagging’ direction!
The bark is then mechanically sliced to produce reasonably accurately graded widths from #00 – #6. This measurement is of itself and does not equate absolutely to millimetres. So, of the most common sizes, #2 cane is 2mm or 2.1mm and #3 cane 2.5mm. The centre of the cane is also manufactured into cylindrical lengths of set sizes. We use it for pegging holes, but its main use is in basketry.
See the blog on where Tim & Kim have travelled to the factory in Indonesia where the cane that they use and supply to other Caners is produced.

Cane Panels – the distance between the holes drilled throughthe seat frame is usually about half an inch. This uses #2 & #3 cane. More tightly spaced holes require finer gauge cane (#1 & #2), and have a closer pattern. This does make them less durable and frequently found on non-weight bearing panels. Seats with this formation should only be used by lightweight persons and infrequently – Never for standing or kneeling on to reach something! A cane seat should always be used with a cushion - cane panels are beautiful, but esseestially only act as a suspension for a cushioned seat.

The Six-way Standard has variants. In terms of durability these are – Double Victoria, Single Victoria, Five Way, Four Way, and ‘Gypsy’ pattern. A decorative alternative is the Marguerite or Star pattern.
Additional variants can be made up by the ingenious or those in a hurry!
Machine or Loom cane is also mass produced in Indonesia and used for chairs where there is a continuous groove around the seat rails rather than holes.
A chair with a few widely spaced holes on bare seat rails with slightly raised corners would be suitable for Close Caning; a technique which previously used split willow skeins.

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