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Cane Bottomed Chairs

Ladder-back chairs have gained a lot of attention in the collectors realm in the past few years. But this really isn’t anything new. A book that was originally published in 1903 went on to describe these rush bottomed chairs as something that had up until then been quite overlooked. So in an effort to preserve it explained the process of how to make the cane bottom yourself, since the craft {in the author’s day} had waned to hardly a person being found practicing it. Perhaps that was because in Victorian times advice on upholstering old cane chairs was given. This was probably easier and the materials, muslin and canvas, more readily available than cat-tails {the rush} which had been previously let to dry. Also I think cane bottomed chairs were not quite so fashionable so a fabric alternative was given. Here is the Victorian advice on upholstering old cane chairs, taken from Manufacturer and Builder – 1871

Upholstering Old Cane Chairs
“When the cane seat of a chair is broken, it may be made as good as new, or better, by upholstering it at home, as described by a contemporary. After removing the superfluous bits of cane, cover the space with matting formed of 8-inch wide canvas belting woven together. Tack it temporarily in places. After placing over this some coarse muslin, draw both smooth, and secure at the edge with twine, making use of the perforations. Remove the tacks, turn the raw edge over toward the center, and baste it down. Arrange the curled hair and wool, or whatever you propose to use for stuffing,and keep it in position by basting over it a piece of muslin; then carefully fit the rep, pin it in different places until you are certain it is in perfect shape, and tack it permanently, following, of course, the tracing made for the cane. Cover the edge with fringe to match the rep, using tiny ornamental tacks, and tie with an upholsterer’s needle in as many laces as is desirable, leaving a button on the upper side. When the back of the chair is to be repaired, a facing must be tacked on the outside.
Now for those who prefer or need restoration as opposed to turning an old thing into
something new again here is how you would go about making the actual rush bottomed seats…

Rush Seat
Rush Seat

How to Rush-Seat Chairs
When we began to appreciate our great-grandmother’s furniture, and garrets gave up their treasures of old mahogany, warming-pans and spinning-wheels, another old treasure came with them, the rush-bottomed chair. While it was lying in dust and disfavour its maker learned another craft, so that now it is almost impossible to find a workman who can rush-seat chairs. Sometimes, in out-of-the-way country places, one finds an old man who still practises the craft; but they are few, and becoming fewer. Any one with time and patience and a strong pair of hands can do it, for it is not a complicated process.

Fig. 14
Fig. 14

The rush used is the ordinary cat-tail which grows in our marshes. It should be gathered in August, as soon as the tips begin to dry. The rush is spread on the floor of a darkened room and allowed to stay until it is thoroughly dry. The night before it is to be used it should be laid in a wet cloth, and the next morning, if it is not pliable enough to twist without cracking, it should be sprinkled with water. One, two or three pieces may be used, according to the degree of fineness desired in the work. One makes a very fine strand, two a medium, and three, unless it is very tightly twisted, makes quite a heavy, coarse strand. A chair which is to be rush-seated should have simply an open frame in lieu of a seat. A strand of rush tightly twisted is laid over the upper side of the frame, close to the right-hand corner, with its short end turning down. The long end is brought down back of the frame, up and around the right side of the frame close to the corner, binding the short end of rush tightly. It then passes across the frame, over the left side (coming out below where it came across), up and around the upper part of the frame close to the corner. The strand is tightly twisted as it is brought along. It next passes down across the open frame to the lower side, where it is brought over the frame, up and back of it, around the left side close to the corner, across the open space to the lower right-hand corner (see Fig. 14).

Fig 15
Fig 15

Here it passes around the frame close to the corner, then down over the lower side of the
frame, back and up to where it started. This simple process is continued until the frame is filled, which, as already said, will take time and patience. If one piece of rush is used to make the twisted strand, new pieces are joined to it at the corners by simply tying the two ends in a square knot. If two or three pieces are twisted to make the strand they should be of uneven lengths so that only one new piece need be added at a time ; the thin end of this new length is laid with the other piece and twisted tightly in with it. When the frame is partially filled (see Fig. 15), bits of rush, short waste pieces, are stuffed into the corners, between the upper and lower layers of rush. This is done whenever there is room. It will make the seat hard and firm and improve its appearance. An old man who is said to make the best rush-seats on Cape Cod is authority for the statement that if a piece of leather is rubbed over the rush after it is twisted it will give it a gloss which will add greatly to the beauty of the work. If the frame of the seat is square, the diagonal lines (formed by the crossing, of the strands of rush), which come from each corner of the frame, will meet in the centre. Should it be broader from side to side than from top to bottom, the two lines on the left will meet before they reach the centre, as will those on the right. In this case the short, straight line in the centre { Observable in the finished seat, see plate – which is at the beginning of this part of the article) will be made as follows: The strand of rush starting at the bottom will be brought up and over the upper side of the frame and the lines of rush below it ; back and down to the lower side, where it is brought over and back. It then goes up again and over the upper side of the frame. This is repeated until the open space in the centre is entirely filled.

So now we know how to add those cane bottomed chairs. Too bad I didn’t know this back in August since I could have been harvesting our cat-tails for to try my hand at this. Oh well there is always next year. In the meantime I found a few more images of cane bottomed chairs for those “ladder-back” enthusiasts.

The ornate rush seat. These would not have been common in the early 20th century. Looks more like a product of the 1850s – 1880s to me.

 

 

Early 19th century rush seats
Early 19th century rush seats

 

Another common rush seat pattern
Another common rush seat pattern