Friday, May 1, 2020

Lost Arts Remembered

by Patti Sherry-Crews

Weaving a Chair Seat with Rush

I'm writing this during the Covid 19 Stay-at-Home order, during which time I've noticed that quite a few of us, whether out of boredom or necessity, are going back to some old ways. Already in the first couple of weeks it was hard to find flour or yeast in the stores, because suddenly everyone was making bread. I was getting texts from friends alerting me to stores where I could score a bag of flour. I even made my own ketchup when we ran out and I didn't want to risk my life by running out for a condiment. It was very good and now I know how to make my own ketchup. I have been laughingly calling our home the Homestead as we scourge around to patch together meals and make repairs on the things that decided to break or rip at this most inconvenient time (when a toilet broke, my husband replaced it with aid from our plumber who walked him through the operation on Facetime while sitting outside our home in his van). One upshot of this altered lifestyle is that everyday tasks take longer to do, and when you're trying to fill a day, that's a plus.

I've been thinking about all the things we've forgotten how to do. For instance, weaving chair seats was a common skill not too many generations back. In the day when chairs themselves were kind of a luxury out on the frontier or on an isolated the homestead, people took care of their possessions, making repairs or maybe even making the chairs themselves.

One fact you may not know about me is that I am a second generation chair seat weaver. My mother taught me, my sister, and other family members how to weave all kinds of seats. I hear often what a lost art this is, and that is true, but at one time it was not uncommon to make these repairs yourself. People had the knowledge. Once in a while I get a customer who tells me their grandparent wove the seat originally.

A good option over sitting your bottom on a hard, splintery plank was to weave a seat out of natural material found in your environs.

For centuries tall water plants like cattails were harvested for use in weaving baskets and chair seats. After drying out the long leaves, they could be twisted into a cordage and wrapped around the rungs of a chair. Think about the common ladder back chairs with the X pattern in the seat as an example. This is a very time-consuming and labor-intensive project where the weaver is twisting the rush into the cord while simultaneously working their way from all four outside corners to the center.

Left to Right: Rush Seat and Bolt of Rush, Binding Cane Rocker, Scandinavian Twine Chair

Another material used for weaving is the inner tree barks. By using a tool called a drawknife, long, supple strips could be cut down the length of the tree section. These fibrous strands make a durable, comfortable seat.


In Asia the outer bark of rattan is stripped off and used in cane chairs. People of means in Europe and America might import caned furniture. While back in America, native trees such as hickory or ash, were stripped of their bark by a similar method. These seats are called "splint" seats. When the seats eventually wore out, people often replaced the weaving themselves.

Unusual Hand Cane Pattern on Back and Faux Hickory Splint* Seat (yes, that is a dog toy in background). 

I don't reweave seats full-time anymore (and I don't do it for free, btw). I can work from home, which came in handy when my children were young. Working from home has it's own challenges, which many of you may be experiencing right now as you change over to working remotely. Just because you're at home doesn't mean you're free for other family members and friends who want your attention. Am I right?

Scandinavian Twine Chair VS Cat Needing Attention 

Hand Cane Chair VS Dog Needing Attention (she stuck her head right through the seat)

I say I look forward to the day I don't have to cane or rush another chair seat, but in all honesty, I find it can be a soothing activity. While I have a podcast or TV in the background, I do some of my best writing--in my head while my hands are busy.

 I think I've woven just about every kind of seat there is, and I've seen some lovely pieces of furniture. I do some specialty work like the complicated floating medallion chair backs.

Early Steps
Completed Floating Medallion

Some pieces can be very large, and thankfully they're rare.

A Couch! Notice the pegs in side panel holding strands of cane in place while I work.
Finished Chairs Ready for Pickup and Dog Ready for Walkies
One modern advantage I have is that I don't have to go out and strip tree bark or harvest cattails from a watery ditch. I order bolts of ready-made rush and hanks of cane online from my supplier, and then a truck delivers the goods to my front door.

*This paper product is made to look like hickory splint

It's been a long couple of months for many of us. Have you turned to any new projects during this time? We've been spending a lot of time in the kitchen. How about you?

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Julie Lence said...

Hi Patti! You do beautiful work!!! I'm in awe. Thank you so much for explaining the process and the materials used. I've learned something new today and can see how making a chair seat can free your mind to mentally work on a story. To answer your question at the end, the only significant changes to my home are hubbs and kiddo working from home. I haven't taken up any hobbies or spent more time in the kitchen. (It's just the three of us, though we are helping restaurants by ordering delivery more often). I have been more focused on completing my WIP. Hugs to you and your family!

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Hi, Julie! Thanks! I'm glad to see you and your family are well. Like you, working from home not a big change for me, and as an introvert on top of everything else, I can say, Stay-at-Home? I got this! I happy to hear you're working. I've had so much trouble focusing on WIP and I realize it's because for weeks I have had no chairs to work on, which was part of a routine I've had for years. But the broken chair business is starting up again and I have work to do again, so we'll see how it goes. Have a great weekend!

Andrea Downing said...

Patti, I am so happy to finally see some of your work (and hope you disinfect at the moment before handling those chairs!) I've always been fascinated by this work. I used to do macrame and once did a macrame stool seat. I took it on a plane to pass the time--make it fly by, you might say--and as I boarded, the attendant said to me, "It's OK. We have seats on this flight."
As for what we're doing here now--cooking, baking, and eating!

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

I'm laughing at the thought of macramed plane seats. cooking, baking and eating...As of today noticing my clothes are tighter than they were. It doesn't help we've had rainy, cold weather. As for the chair, I shouted out the door to the customer who left it on the porch,and I took it in the house and wiped it down. Thanks for stopping by!

Kristy McCaffrey said...

Interesting. Thanks for sharing, Patti.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Hi, Kristy. Thank you for stopping by!

Ruthie Manier said...

HI, I enjoyed your post and learned alot. As for my family we are all "essential workers" so life hasn't changed too much. The grandsons still go to their school/daycare. I've gained a few corona pds I'm sorry to say. Thank you.