In June of 2006, I traveled to England on a McKnight/Arrowhead Regional Arts Council Fellowship Grant. The grant allowed me to study how willow is grown and cultivated for basket making and also to study the rush harvesting process and seat weaving techniques.
I spent ten delightful days with my host and President of the Basketmakers’ Association (BA), Olivia Elton Barratt. She took me all over England to see how both bulrush and willow are grown, harvested, processed, and used in weaving baskets and chair seats.
We even watched as a hot air balloon, capable of holding 12 people, was being woven out of skin-on rattan and watched as handwoven willow coffins were made at The Somerset Willow Company!
Weaving with English Rush
One day during my stay, Olivia was holding a regular weaving class at her home with two students. One of the gals was learning how to weave a bulrush chair seat and the other was weaving a dyed round reed basket.
Since I had made both hand-twisted cattail rush seats and round rattan reed baskets at home, Olivia asked me if I’d like to learn how to weave a rush boater’s hat.
Weaving a rush hat while using of this wonderful English rush was something I had never done before. I had only admired pictures of the lovely hats as I read the instructions in Olivia’s books that I had purchased years ago.
Of course, I agreed to take a rush boater’s hat lesson from Olivia! I had a wonderful time as she taught me how to weave this beautiful rush hat using the long, wide, and soft English rush that Olivia had prepared earlier that day!
Using an English Chair Caning Needle
During the course of conversation, the topic of using a chair caning needle on hole-to-hole chair caning came up. I was lamenting about how difficult it was to use one on a hole-to-hole cane seat. Because our American caning needles were so stiff and not flexible enough to bend in the intricate and tight weave.
Olivia took out her English chair caning needle for me to examine and I was surprised at how different the English and American caning needles are.
Their caning needles look nothing like ours and as she explained, are very easy to work with. Also, when using a caning needle, they change the sequence of the seven chair caning weaving steps.
The vertical rows of steps #1 and #3 are put in first, and then use the caning needle the horizontal rows of steps #2 and #4 are put in.
Lastly, all the diagonal steps of #5 and #6 and the remaining binder cord couching are all done by hand without the assistance of the needle.
The English chair caning needles are made with a very fine, narrow metal that has a pointed (picket fence style) end with a rectangular hole in it (where you insert the end of a strand of cane to pull through the weave) and a wooden handle at the other end.
This needle is so fine and flexible that it can be manipulated well throughout the first four set-up stages of the traditional hand caning, leaving only the two diagonals and binder cord to weave without the tool.
Thank you, Olivia Elton Barratt, for presenting me with such a valuable tool, thanks for enlightening me! Now, how are we going to get this tool over here in America?
UPDATE NOTICE: The imported English chair caning needles, or “steamers” as they are frequently called, are available for purchase through cane and basket supplier, Peerless Rattan, listed in the Cane & Basket Supplies Directory™.
These are slightly different than the one I got from Olivia, however, in that they are flat and thin about 1/4″-1/2″ in width and have no handle. But this style of English chair caning needle still works just fine!
I will be switching to this tool for use on all my hole-to-hole caning because it certainly does speed up the weaving process!
And then keep my American caning needle to use for all the wide binding/porch cane weaving jobs where it works so well.
What is your experience weaving with the assistance of an English chair caning needle? Have you ever used one? Let me know in the comments below.
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Happy Weaving, until next time!