Caned Furniture Case Study: Design Encounters

British Museum 003

Figure 3. Egyptian stool showing holes round the seat through which palm leaf fibres are woven. British Museum. Image courtesy of author.

Design Encounters

The traditional technique for weaving a caned panel requires a series of holes around the perimeter of the panel.  This concept was used by the Egyptians from around 1800 BC for beds and stools, however, the woven material and pattern is different to the caned furniture evident in England from the late seventeenth century.[1]  

Arab and Greek traders were working around the coastlines of Africa and South East Asia trading in spices and many other items for centuries as well as trading on the overland Silk Route, before the first Europeans sailed round the Cape of Good Hope.  Also the Chinese were trading in the Red Sea in the early fifteenth century, but it is doubtful that the concept of holes around a panel transferred from Egypt by these traders to other locations.  It is probable that this concept emerged independently in Asia, possibly China.

In China it was normal to sit on the floor or low platforms. However, folding chairs with woven textile or leather seats were used by groups moving around the country.  Rigid framed chairs came into use in the tenth century.[2] Initially these chairs had wooden seats. Then, in the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), decoration was added on top of the wooden seat by the use of woven cane or more valuable materials.  A major development was when the wooden seat was replaced by thin palm fibre ropes woven through holes around the seat to provide not only the structural support for the decorative layer but also a more comfortable seat.  Ultimately the supporting palm fibre ropes were dispensed with and cane was woven through the holes around a panel, becoming the structural seat in its own right but in a different woven pattern.[3]   Another theory about the origin of caned chairs is that the use of woven cane seating was established in India and Buddhist monks took stools with them to China which utilised this technique on the seat.   

The use of woven cane in furniture is obscure, but its use was widespread throughout the tropics in India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Burma (Myanmar), Malay Peninsula, Moluccas, Philippines, southwest China and the islands of Java, Sumatra and Borneo.   David Dewing notes, ‘The use of cane for chairs was almost certainly inspired by its use on chairs made in India, Ceylon, and Indonesia for Europeans, first for the Portuguese and later for the Dutch and English.’[4]   

In China, cane was woven in various patterns to decorate the top surface of the wooden seat, but the most popular pattern which emerged as the caned structural seat, is one that has been in use from at least 250 BC.[5] This is known as the ‘six-way pattern’ and is used on virtually all caned panels, from the time that cane alone was used for the seat, until today.  The use of holes around a panel, through which cane is woven in the six-way pattern, is believed to be the origin of the caned chair as we now know it.

Cane is currently available in the United Kingdom in seven different widths.  The width(s) chosen to weave a panel seek to achieve a balance of cane to open areas – not looking too flimsy or too crude.  Strangely, the widths of cane used in North America are different to those used in the UK, as are those used in mainland Europe, but the six-way pattern is common throughout the world.  This pattern uses two lengths of cane in each hole going from front to back of the seat, two lengths of cane in each hole going from side to side which completes the square grid.  Then two single diagonals lengths going from ‘Liverpool to London’ and from ‘York to Yeovil’ – terms used by chair caners!


Figure 4. Child’s caned chair used by John Ruskin, showing the typical 6 way pattern on both the seat and back panels. Chair re-caned by the author. Image courtesy of author.

 Previous / Next

[1] G. Killen, Ancient Egyptian Furniture Vol. 1. 4000-1300 BC (1984). Illustrates and details many example of furniture

with holes around a frame.

[2] C. P. Fitzgerald, Barbarian Beds: the origin of the chair in China (1965).  

[3] Wang Shixiang, Connoisseurship of Chinese Furniture: Ming and Early Qing Dynasties. Vol 1 (1990). 

[4] Dewing, ‘Cane Chairs in London’, p. 76.

[5] ‘Report on the Excavations at Huixian County’, Archaeological Institute of the Chinese Academy of

Sciences, (1956), p. 77.  The pattern was impressed in sand from a basket which had decomposed.