Virginians use caning, weaving to preserve pieces of history
A few modern-day artists are bringing back the centuries-old crafts of caning and weaving furniture.
Alice Higgins, who opened Higgins Chair Caning in Augusta County in 2005, said chair caning has been practiced in Southeast Asia, Portugal, France and England since the mid-1600s. “The techniques haven’t changed much. Weaving requires only a few common tools you probably already have, so you only need the desire, a little patience and some tenacity,” explained Higgins, an Augusta County Farm Bureau member.
Her passion for the craft of looping and weaving long, thin strands of cane led her to start her own business. She previously worked for a furniture refinisher and saw a need for weavers. After lots of trial and error, she honed her skills and opened her business.
Now she weaves and sells restored antique furniture to customers from all over the East Coast.
“Woven chairs can fit into any décor,” Higgins said. “The craftsmanship is exquisite. It’s hard to find the same quality in factory-made furniture.”
Tommy Kwesi Asante, owner of The Master’s Touch Furniture Service in Fredericksburg, agrees. He said working on caned and woven furniture is about restoring special memories or giving new life to an heirloom passed down through generations.
“When people come pick it up, they feel so satisfied to see it in pristine form that’s going to outlive them, and they can pass it on,” Asante said.
He entered the business in 2014 after immigrating to the U.S. from Ghana with his family. An established wood carver in his home country, Asante learned to cane and weave from the shop’s previous owner, who eventually retired and left the business to Asante.
“The most common type of repair is the chair seat,” he remarked.
Higgins said each individual chair “dictates the weave for the most part.” She explained that holes lining a chair seat’s perimeter indicate the seat is hand-caned, one strand at a time.
One of the most common weaving techniques is the seven-step method—weaving cane in vertical and horizontal directions before going diagonal—forming the traditional octagon pattern seen on many antique chairs.
Danish cord is a more contemporary look and is woven on the chair frame, creating a basket weave design. Splint is a type of flat material made from rattan reed, ash, oak or hickory that’s woven in herringbone or basket weave patterns and commonly seen on Southern porch rockers.
Then there’s blind cane.
“It’s called blind cane because you don’t see it from the back,” Higgins explained. “The holes don’t come all the way through, and you have to end each strand right there in the hole and peg it as you go.”
Asante said fixing caned seats is the final step in the restoration process—the rest of the chair must first be repaired if necessary.
He added there aren’t many Virginians caning or weaving, but he believes preserving the ancient art is important.