Rattan Weaving An Age-Old Artisan Passion
By Mu Xi & Qing Cha
Rattan has been around for thousands of years. Although commonly used to make furniture, there are other ways this light, durable and flexible material can be put to good use. Rattan furniture, with its rustic charm, works well in any space, be it the vintage rattan bookcase in the living room or the classic sun-lounger placed outdoors. When woven, it serves well as a placemat, basket, bassinet, rope, and more.
Ancient Art and Craft
Wicker, a technique of weaving natural fibers such as rattan, bamboo and cane, is an age-old art and craft. The most commonly used material is rattan as it has a rich texture, is lightly woody-scented, and has visually pleasing variations in its grain. The art of weaving rattan dates back at least as far as Ancient Egypt, and it also has a lengthy Chinese history going back more than 2,000 years.
The remains of rattan bags and baskets dating to the Warring States period (475 — 221 BC)have been uncovered. Rock-filled rattan baskets were used to build dams to control water flow and stave off flooding at the prompting of famed politician and engineer Li Bing. Being both strong and flexible, rattan served well as helmets and armor. According to Chinese legend, esteemed military strategist and politician Zhuge Liang (181 — 234 CE) once commanded his soldiers to use rattan stems as staffs. This gave rise to the saying: “Gold has a price, while rattan staffs are priceless.”
According to research, many Chinese families started to use mats woven of rattan as their furniture for sitting or sleeping before Han dynasty. As weaving techniques improved, other pieces of furniture such as rattan beds, rattan chairs and rattan screens came into being. Evolving from simple, plain pieces, rattan furniture eventually became decorative, fashioned by gifted, passionate artisans with eyes for elegant aesthetics.
Rattan Weaving in the Modern World
For millennia, rattan has served humanity as a vast array of essentials ranging from utensils to even houses, and its service continues. Its highly flexible nature makes it an ideal go-to material. It is easily shaped into any size.
Durable, lightweight, and in keeping with modern taste, rattan furniture is a popular choice for both indoor and outdoor use in all seasons. All parts of the rattan plant, other than a thorny outer layer, are cut into poles used for making furniture and décor. Just underneath the thorny layer is the cane, which is peeled and processed into long strands. Cane is woven to make chair seats and backs, or into a material that wraps around segments of furniture frames. Many seats and backs of cane chairs are left as their natural color as cane has a natural shine to it and is stain-resistant.
Another useful part of rattan is the reed, which is the inner, wood-like portion of the plant. It is more fibrous and porous than the cane layer, and it’s absorbent, making color-staining possible. Ornamentations that lend an artistic flair, such as the swirls and curls on certain types of elaborate wicker furniture, are traditionally made from reed.
Rattan grows at a very fast rate. What is harvested can be fully replenished in just a few years. Thus, rattan products are kind to Mother Earth.
At the Shanghai Expo in 2010, one of the greatest attractions was an enormous and stunning Spanish pavilion which featured a wicker rattan façade covering a steel frame. “Rattan is a natural fiber used by artisans in both the East and the West, so it symbolizes a connection between Spain and China,” said Maria Tena, the pavilion’s general commissioner.
Comfort and Care of Rattan
Those who live in bustling metropolitan areas may wish to harmonize their homes with the beauty and peace of Nature through interior decorating. A rattan sofa with a few warm, comfy cushions may help to put you in touch with the natural world when you retreat inside and snuggle up.
Rattan does not conduct an excessive amount of heat. Hence, it is warm in winter and cool in summer, offering comfort year-round and in any climate. As rattan is nontoxic, it is a healthful decorating choice for one’s home environment.
Rattan furniture requires minimal maintenance and will last for years. Simply use a damp soft cloth to wipe the surface clean. To remedy a spill on your furniture, use a mild soap on a sponge and gently scrub, then use water. Alternatively, for a nonabrasive cleaning, add a little salt to the water to remove the dirt. Be aware that any chemical cleaner may tend to cause damage if it lodges in the weave. When dust settles deep into the wicker crevices, it is best reached by means of a vacuum. Only use a low-intensity setting if you are hosing the furniture as this prevents weave patterns from moving around.
Tips on Choosing Rattan Furniture
Look carefully for tight weaves without any rough corners or protruding strands.
For strength and durability, a powder-coated aluminum frame is essential.
To prevent rattan from becoming fragile and cracking, the weave should have UV protection.
High-quality natural-colored rattans will have a variegation of color along the length of each strand, and will also have a non-uniform scraped surface that gives a duller, more lifelike look, rather than a plastic-like shine.
Patterns of Weave
Weaving patterns, each with its own charm, make a big difference to both aesthetics and the strength of rattan furniture. The higher the density of a weave, the sturdier and longer-lasting it is. All weaving is handmade by artisans. The myriad of weaving techniques in use today ranges from the simple and commonly used strand or hand caning, to sophisticated and elaborate ones, depending on the skill and creativity of the weaver.
Signature of a Weaver
Each artisan can come up with their own special kind of twist or knot that identifies their creation, just as every famed painter can be identified by his or her brushstroke style. The finishing twist is like the weaver’s signature, representing a signing off after completing their work. A skilled eye could effortlessly ascertain the location of the atelier where a piece of rattan furniture was produced, and even the professional artisan.
Dignity of and Respect for Artisans
Weavers often work on tight deadlines, completing one piece of work a day. Reputable companies treat their employees with dignity and respect, complying with local labor laws and standard working hours. Consumers should endeavor to make sure that artisans are given fair compensation in line with local wage laws and that they work in a safe and secure environment.
In a world of plastics and other synthetic materials, rattan connects us to the Earth and takes us back in time, linking us to other cultures and to skilled weavers and artisans whose legacy lives on.