Wicker woven baskets

The Ancient Art of Wicker Weaving and its Significance in History

The art of weaving has been around ever since humans began settling down. It is common knowledge that weaving is used to produce textiles but, what we may miss is that it can be used for more purposes. Weaving is also used to manufacture containers, shelter, bedding, furniture and so much more. Making these items, however, follows a special technique using certain materials.

In this post, we find out what this technique is, how such durable household items are made, and what materials they use. We will also delve into the history of this art form to see just how ancient this technique is and how it has shaped humanity.

Wicker Weaving

modern wicker outdoor furniture
Image Credit: The Courtyard

Wicker is a weaving technique used to make a wide range of products traditionally using pliable and durable natural materials.

The term ‘wicker’ is believed to have Scandinavian origins, being derived from the word ‘wika’ meaning ‘to bend’ or ‘vikker’ meaning ‘willow’.

The wicker technique can be best described as a slightly more advanced version of basket weaving that produces a sturdy and durable object with the ability to stand the test of time. It is the result of manipulating fairly primitive materials such as rattan, cane, reeds, paper, bamboo, stiff grasses, raffia, willow and other wood barks. Baskets can be wicker, but not all baskets are wicker. That is because no matter what, to be wicker, it has to be woven, either by hand or machinery.

The term can also be used to refer to the variety of objects made using the technique. Nowadays, wicker usually refers to woven furniture, but it isn’t only limited to that. It can also be used to make shelter, storage containers, mattresses, cushions, and other decorative and handicraft items.

The word ‘wicker’ is also interchangeably used with the material used to make the wicker. For example, some may call it rattan, when they’re referring to wicker products in general. Or, they may call it rattan, referring to wicker products just made of rattan.

How is Wicker Made?

The process of making wicker may look simple, but the reality is far from that. Weaving such stiff materials requires expert skills that have been passed down over generations. This is how the ancient form of art has still been able to survive.

From selecting the materials to placing all the strips of plant matter, all play a role in determining its final aesthetics. A skilled artist will produce a smooth looking piece with even tones, making it seem like each strip is beautifully matched with another, like a jigsaw puzzle.

To make wicker, first, the raw material is processed. Now, this would depend on the type of material being used. Rattan is by far the most popular material used for wicker weaving, so, we shall look at how it is used to make wicker.

Processing Rattan from Start to Finish

Rattan arrives as long poles with a sturdy outer layer, so first, the poles are cut into smaller and more manageable pieces. Then, the bark is scraped off. This is what ultimately makes cane products, so the bark is cut into strips and used for weaving.

The skinned rattan is then cut into either flat strips or thin wires. This depends on the desired pattern to be used for weaving. Some of the rattan pieces are reserved to carve out a frame for the item that needs to be made. Wicker is usually woven around a frame because, although the materials used are stiff, they cannot hold shape without a skeletal structure or frame.

Once the rattan is cut into uniform strips, they’re dried under the sun or simply air-dried before being soaked in water. This process makes the strips more malleable and thus, easier to bend and weave with.

man weaving with rattan
Rattan weaver Yam Ban Sang, 70, who has been in the craft for 50 years, working on a piece of rattan furniture at a furniture manufacturer in Parit. Image Credit: Thomas Yong via The Star

Then, based on the frame, each strip is taken and woven till it produces the desired shape and size. The craftsmen spend around one to four days working on a single project. The actual time for a project depends on the weaver. If they weave too tightly, they will require more time to finish.

Once the weaving process is complete, the item is painted and sealed with lacquer to make it water-resistant.

While machinery and advancements in technology surely allow the production of wicker to be more efficient, nothing compares to handmade wicker. The appreciation for one of a kind demands creations outside of the ordinary, which allows craftsmen to stay in business despite high competition from mass-produced and highly mechanized goods.

How Long has Wicker been Around?

The history of wicker goes back to around 5,000 years ago, perhaps being one of the most ancient methods of making furniture and objects. To briefly word its history, the earliest record of wicker comes from the Ancient Sumerian and Egyptian Civilizations. From there, wicker and the skill of wicker weaving reached Ancient Rome, from where it spread all across the Roman Empire and northern Europe. Then, European explorers travelled to other parts of the world and discovered new materials to make wicker with. Following this began the era of European imperialism, where wicker reached the various European colonies globally. Thereon, production methods improve and soon after, wicker is affordable to all and easily available anywhere in the world.

Now let’s look at this history in a little bit more detail.

Pre-Historic Times

If we consider wicker to be an advanced or evolved version of basket weaving, then we must briefly look at the beginnings of basket weaving.

Basket weaving goes hand in hand with the settlement of early humans in pre-historical times. As long as they needed to settle down, they would have needed containers to store their crops, seeds and grain, clothing, jewellery, and to transport goods. When early humans discovered that plant fibres could be braided together, they used them to weave containers or baskets using whatever material was available to them. Materials like willow, bamboo, grass and reeds have come up in historical sources.

The earliest physical evidence of basket weaving is said to date back 10,500 years in the deserts of Israel.

Wicker in Ancient Civilizations

The technique of using weaving for objects other than storage most likely led to the creation of wicker. The earliest record comes from the Ancient Sumerian Civilization, nearly 5000 years ago. Much like the early humans, they would use wicker for clothing, furniture, shelter, flooring, transportation, shields, and utensils. Wicker was also supposedly part of rituals and ceremonies. In the ancient city of Uruk, for example, wicker baskets filled with fruits were placed on top of bovine creatures to offer them during rituals.

an artefact showing the ritualistic basket
Wicker Basket from Uruk 3000 BC. Image Credit: Archaic Wonder

The earliest physical evidence of wicker was found in Egypt, dating back 4000 years, to Ancient Egypt. Remnants of wicker baskets and some impressions of wicker were found on pottery. In ancient Egypt, wicker made with swamp grass-like papyrus, rattan and reed were used to construct chests, wig boxes, chairs, footstools.

At the time, wicker was considered expensive, so the lower class couldn’t afford it, while the middle class could afford only some furniture. It was a valuable commodity to the point that parts of royal furniture were made with it. Woven reed furniture was placed in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs. The tomb of Tutankhamen itself had several pieces of wicker furniture like stools, chair seats, and headboards.  It was a material of great worth that soon reached Persia and eventually Ancient Rome.

wicker stools in Tutankhamun's tomb
Tutankhamun’s tomb. Notice the wicker stools on top. Image Credit: Reddit

Roman Empire

Once it reached Ancient Rome, the Romans were impressed by its aesthetics, lightweight and comfort compared to wood, stone or metal, so, it was quickly adopted across the Roman Empire. They studied the pieces of furniture from Egypt and developed their wicker weaving techniques. The Romans transformed the plain-woven Egyptian wicker into having curves. They also played around with the natural shade of the natural fibres, achieving a lighter wooden shade. In addition to using it for containers, utensils and furniture, the Romans also used it to create privacy screens and swings.

Wicker in Asia

Rattan, the material most popularly used to produce wicker today, is native to tropical areas like Southeast Asia. While one of the best materials was available to Southeast Asians, the wicker technique was first developed somewhere around the Fertile Crescent. It is believed that the technique was introduced to this region via trade. From there, rattan, along with the skill to produce wicker, reached China around the 15th century. Before this, the Chinese were weaving baskets with bamboo, the most abundant material there. From China, wicker seemingly reached Japan.

Once wicker reached China, wicker art became finer and more delicate. These woven products were primarily used as storage containers and covered baskets to preserve ancient scrolls.

Wicker in Early Modern Europe

In the 16th and 17th centuries, wicker had become a popular product across Europe. Explorations and trade overseas along with the general appreciation for Roman culture generated a demand for elegant wicker products. It is also around this time that the Europeans discovered rattan in Southeast Asia.

Rattan is a natural material that has been used for centuries to make furniture. It is a vine palm that grows wildly in tropical forests. It is native to Indonesia and the Malay Archipelago, but it also grows in Africa, other parts of Asia and Oceania.

rattan palm in the forest
Rattan palm. Image Credit: Kalinko

With time, rattan was harvested for its strength and malleability, making it ideal for handicrafts.

The material resembles bamboo. However, its properties differ. While both are durable and flexible to work with, bamboo is hollow and rattan is solid.

Rattan was a more durable material than other types of reeds that were available, proving effective against heat and humidity.

It was also in this era that the wicker developed into the wicker resembling the ones found today. Using this method, they made furniture for babies, such as nursing chairs, cribs and bassinets. Additionally, chairs for the elderly were another popular furnishing. These were especially popular in northern Europe at the time because they were overall easier to clean, plus it was cheaper to produce and purchase. This is because the price of rattan and reeds was cheaper than timber.

Victorian Era

wicker chair from the victorian era
Victorian wicker chair. Image Credit: Live Auctioneers

With the end of the early modern era, began the era of European Imperialism. During and after this period, wicker was regarded as a foreign and exotic product that was demanded by wealthy people in Europe and all its colonies worldwide. From there, wicker had reached all over the world and was even being produced everywhere.

In Victorian-era England, wicker was especially desired. People found it a valuable eastern product that they must have. Plus, Victorian England also valued hygiene and cleanliness, making wicker the ideal alternative to upholstery furniture. Upholstery was difficult to clean, whereas wicker was easy to clean and more hygienic overall. It was also far more comfortable, lightweight and breathable.

So before long, almost every home had wicker furniture installed, making it a common household item. Also during this time, the weaving technique developed to include immensely detailed decorative features and also made with wicker. Due to their flexible nature, people fashioned objects according to their desired style.

Wicker in America

In the mid-19th century, wicker was introduced to the United States. The first wicker product to reach the Unites States was a Victorian-style baby carriage.

Major developments in wicker in the Americas, specifically in the United States, occurred with the establishment of the Wakefield Company. Cyrus Wakefield, a grocer, had discovered a huge bundle of rattan at a dock in Boston. He saw that this material was being imported along with cargo as packaging material. They would protect goods and stop them from moving around when they were at sea. Seeing the potential in these leftover rattans, Cyrus Wakefield took some of them back home and used it to weave around his chair. He had managed to create wicker, so he established the Wakefield Rattan Company by the mid-19th century.

People were quickly enthralled by this product. The popularity and demand for baskets and furniture grew rapidly and Wakefield was now importing rattan from abroad to meet this demand. Wicker furniture was being used indoors, in the garden and even on the front porch.

lloyd loom weaving wicker
The Lloyd loom. Image Credit: Luxe

In 1913, Marshall Burns Lloyd invented a special loom to automate the weaving process after seeing how labour intensive and time-consuming producing wicker was. His invention increased production and lower costs. His invention was patented in 1917 and by 1921, the wicker furniture giants of the time, the Heywood and Wakefield Company (Wakefield merged with another wicker company called Heywood Brothers), adopted this automated technique.

Wicker was being mass-produced and it soon became a product that everyone could afford.

Native American Basket Weaving

It is important to note that prior to the settlement of the Europeans in the Americas, the indigenous tribes were already skilled basket weavers who used materials such as river canes among other materials to weave. Like other ancient civilizations, basket weaving was engrained in their cultures, so it was a part of their daily life. There were even some legends related to basket weaving that a few of the Native American tribes believed in. The Potawatomi Native Americans, who wove baskets using black ash bark, believed that there was once an old woman living on the moon, who would weave a basket. It was believed that the day she finished weaving, the world would be destroyed. Fortunately, an eclipse destroyed the basket before she could finish it and so the world remained undestroyed.

Potawatomi black ash baskets
Potawatomi black ash baskets. Image Credit: Potawatomi.org

20th Century to now

In the early 20th century, the craze for wicker had declined. However, in the 1960s and 70s, its popularity was revived. People were missing the simple yet elegant aesthetic, so, they were opting for the old style once again. Nowadays, wicker products are still in demand, becoming common furniture for gardens, backyards and porches.

The Modern Wicker

synthetic material patio furniture
Wicker furniture made with synthetic materials. Image Credit: Saville Furniture

Through our exploration of wicker production and history, we learned that traditionally, natural materials like rattan, reed, willow, bamboo, etc. are used for the process. However, today, the process no longer strictly uses natural materials. These days, synthetic materials such as synthetic vinyl, aluminium, resins, plastic, etc. are used to weave various objects. It still counts as wicker because it is woven.

These synthetic materials do not deviate from the original wicker texture and aesthetic. Their main benefit is that they are tougher against changing climates and that they’re easier to maintain. This is why wicker made of natural materials are kept indoors while synthetic ones are used outdoors.

While they may have these advantages, their one drawback is that they are non-biodegradable, unlike those made of natural materials.

Contemporary wicker furniture follows sleek and minimalistic designs, still highlighting the craftsmanship of the weaver.

 

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References

Morris, E. A., 2012. The Development and Effects of the Twentieth-Century Wicker Revival, Washington: George Washington University – The Smithsonian Associates and Corcoran College of Art and Design.

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