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Marshall McGurk, Elm House Farm, Crosby, MARYPORT, Cumbria, CA15 6SH. Tel: 01900 813200   

Close-Up Of The Traditional Six-Way Caning Pattern Close-up of traditional 6-way pattern.
Click to see larger photo.

SEATING CANE

ORIGINS

The cane used for seating comes from rattans, jungle creepers. There are about 1600 species in 14 genera, but the ones we are interested in come from the Calamus and Daemonoropos genera. These plants grow in the far east, mostly the Malay peninsula, Indonesia and the Philippines, and can reach up to 500ft (150m) long. The thickness varies (although it tends to be constant throughout the length of one plant) from a few millimetres to the thickness of a man's arm.

Rattans also grow in West Africa, but for seating purposes these are not as good.

Commercial cultivation is increasing, but as yet there is not enough of it to satisfy demand, and most of our cane still comes from wild plants, which are becoming endangered due to deforestation and uncontrolled exploitation.

GROWTH PATTERN

Rattans grow vertically up to 2-3ft (60-90cm) and then they put out ferocious barbed tendrils to catch hold of nearby plants. These tendrils grow from the tips of the leaves which sport nasty spikes underneath. Like some horror from a 1950s 'B' movie, this vicious plant supplies delicate seats for members of even the world's politest societies!

HARVESTING

Oddly enough the locals don't rush out in gleeful droves to volunteer for rattan harvesting: they seem strangely reluctant and only take on the job when no alternative paid work is available. (I'd love to hear from anyone with first-hand knowledge of the process of rattan-harvesting! Please email if you know anything from your own experience, or have photos.)

Harvesters wear thick leather gloves and hack through the vines with sharp axes about 3ft (90cm) above ground level, leaving enough so that new growth will be ready for cutting in 6 or 7 years. Leaving the cut vines where they hang, the workers return a few days later when they will have dried out sufficiently so that the outer bark will be coming loose. The brave workers pull the vine through a notch in a tree, thus stripping off the bark and thorns. Now and again some poor chap will have to climb into the trees to release a vine that's got stuck too firmly by its thorns. (And you thought gathering wild brambles was dangerous work!)

PROCESSING

The nasty bit is now over, but there's lots more to be done.

The part we use for seating is the hard, glossy, impervious inner bark which covers the central pith. The cane is cut into lengths of 12-30ft (2.5-9m) and tied into bundles which have to be processed quickly before the centre goes bad. Curing involves sulphuration to destroy fungi and insects.

Grading has to be done, for quality and diameter: checks are done for smoothness, colour and length between leaf nodes. A machine separates the bark (for seating) from the inner core (centre cane, used extensively for basketwork and rattan furniture). The inner bark is split and trimmed into flat strips about 1.5mm thick. You'd now recognise this at last as seating cane. All that has to be done now is a final trimming for uniform thickness and width.


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