Caned Furniture Case Study: Material Exchange

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Figure 1. The Calumus Genus of Rattan Palm Trees grow between the green boundaries. Courtesy of John Dransfield,former head of palm research at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Material Exchange

The material used to weave caned panels in furniture is commonly known as ‘cane’ and is from the Rattan Palm Tree which grows in the rainforests of Malaysia, Indonesia, Borneo and small areas of China, India and Sri Lanka.  The major exporter is Indonesia which today produces 85 per cent of the world’s supply of rattan. 

The Rattan Palm tree is unusual in that it is not free standing like a normal tree, but climbs seeking light.  Stems, or vines, rise from ground level climbing through the forest canopy and can grow up to 150 metres long being covered with vicious spikes.  The vines are unusual in having the same diameter for their full length and a solid core.  They are particularly characterised by their strong tensile strength and were used in the past as rigging for Chinese ships and, until recently, as the cables in pedestrian suspension bridges constructed in remote areas.

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Figure 2. Rattan pedestrian suspension bridge in the Malaysian rain forest before the First World War. From the archives of Fred Aldous Ltd, Manchester who have traded in rattan since 1860.

There are hundreds of different forms of this climbing tree of the Calamus rattan genus with different features, but only a very small number are suitable for chair cane.  The most common used is Calamus Caesius.[1]   Malacca Cane comes from the same genus and was imported to England in vast quantities for, and as, walking sticks during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They were used by teachers to punish children in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  It is important to appreciate that chair cane is not Bamboo, which is a free standing grass growing up to 20 metres high. Its hollow trunk varies in diameter from the ground to the top like a conventional tree.  We are familiar with this in the UK as the humble garden cane and, due to its strength in compression it is used across Asia as scaffolding.

The long vines of the specific Rattan Palm tree are pulled down from the forest canopy by people living in the rain forests.  They are then cut into approximate 6 metre lengths.  Traditionally, the spikes covering the outer surface were stripped off and then leaf nodes rubbed off by hand using sand and water.  Modern practice is to undertake most of these operations by industrial processes. 

Vines used for chair cane have a diameter in the range 10 – 20mm and these 6 metre lengths are called ‘rattans’ as recorded in the Customs Records 1697 – 1870.[2]   The rattans originally arrived in London as packing or ‘dunnage’ around the bags and chests of tea and spices, to prevent these very valuable cargoes moving on the long sea journey from various locations, where East India Company (EIC) factories (warehouses) consolidated different items of cargo prior to loading for departure.[3]  Singapore was the main factory used by the EIC for the supply of rattans.  On arrival in London, the rattans were initially a waste material and basketmakers saw the opportunity to use the material as a free substitute for willow, which has similar characteristics.  However, due to this use, first in baskets and then for caned furniture and other uses, rattans were subsequently imported by the EIC in vast quantities to London from the late seventeenth century as a distinct commodity, albeit of very low value.

Cane used for weaving panels in furniture, is the outer skin or bark of the rattan vine.  Originally, lengths of rattan would be split into thirds or quarters lengthwise by hand and then the required width and thickness of the cane could be achieved by a process of drawing these split lengths through pairs of sharp blades. The first attempts produced cane that was wide and of variable quality but by 1700, these hand techniques had improved to such an extent that very narrow cane of good quality was being produced.  Cane for furniture made in England was processed manually by apprentice basketmakers and others during the period under consideration, but later developments in machine processing from around 1860 in America and Germany, meant that hand processing in England eventually became redundant.  Hand processing still continues in some rural locations of South East Asia.  The main centre for machine processing rattan in Europe was in Hamburg, but now virtually all machine processing is undertaken in the country where the rattan palm tree is harvested.

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[1] John Dransfield, A manual of the Rattans of the Malay Peninsula (1978).

[2] The Author has analysed import and export of rattans to and from London and other UK ports detailed in

the Customs records 1697 – 1869 held at the National Record Office, Kew, typically referenced ‘Cust 3’ for

each year.  The source was noted as ‘East Indies’ but after 1780, specific ports of origin were identified. 

[3] See C. J. A. Borg, Porcelain and the Dutch China Trade (1982), p. 51. Here Borg describes Dutch practices for cargo

loading.  ‘The space at the side was filled with half and quarter chests [of tea], smaller gaps with nankeen and rattan.’

On pages 52 and 53, he shows a typical loading plan and cross section though the hull of the vessel.