Weaving a Pretwisted Natural Rush Seat
October 21, 2016
Recently I purchased this French Provincial Chair from Craigslist. I was looking for a chair to weave a pre-twisted rush seat. I would guess that this chair originally had a natural rush seat at one time before it was woven with a fiber rush seat. In looking over the structure of the chair I believe it would have been made in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s. It is a nice sturdy chair made from birch.
Once I removed the old fiber rush seat it was apparent that the seat frame needed repair. The front of the seat frame had come undone from the sides and the front legs.
After repairing the seat the next step was to start weaving.
I chose a 5/32” size of pre twisted natural rush which comes in coils. It is very nice material that appears to be bull rush as the strands are wedge shaped and have a porous interior.
After soaking it for about 15 minutes it is ready to go. The longer the pre-twisted rush soaks the more it will likely come apart while weaving.
It is also best to wrap the coil in the direction it wants to go to prevent unraveling and kinking. Like natural cattail rush I used sections that are about 5-6ft long which worked out much better than longer pieces that you use when weaving with fiber rush. Try not to not handle it too much as it tends to unravel the more it is handled. During the weaving process it often needs to be re-twisted.
For this type of seat the first few strands of pre-twisted rush are attached along the sides with tacks or staples to square up the seat. This is done for natural untwisted rush as well as fiber rush.
At the corners it is best to make nice tight coils which involves twisting the rush as much as possible to make them neat and square.
From time to time it is necessary to push the strands together to keep everything square. This helps to keep the weaving even as you weave towards the center of the chair to make nice woven seat. As the weaving progresses the seat will need to be stuffed. Here I was experimenting with using scraps of the rush material.
However I eventually opted for cardboard wedges which worked better.
Almost done weaving and everything is square and tight. The eight edges of the partially woven seat will need to be pushed tight to keep everything straight and to fit as much of the weaving material as possibl on the seat. The picture also illustrates how the pretwisted rush likes to unravel and needs to be retwisted constantly.
Top shows a nice tightly woven seat with the variegated colors of a natural rush product that is very close to a traditional rush seat. While most of the knots joining the sections together were concealed in the weaving process some remain visible. I believe I would use thin wire or hog rings to fasten the ends together for the next seat. As a final step the chair seat was given a coat of clear shellac.
Flat Reed Splint and Shaker Tape Chair Seat Weaving
August 22, 2016
After accomplishing two splint chair seats and one foot stool. I decided to work on two more splint seats using 5/8 inch material and branch out into a Shaker Tape weaving adventure
One of my clients had this beautiful Southeastern Style ladder back chair made from maple or birch that dated to the late 1800’s to early 1900’s. We chose using a 5/8” flat reed splint that is dyed a dark tan color which is often referred to as “smoked flat reed” For older pieces of furniture I believe the “smoked” color looks best. Since it is a dyed uniform color to start with the color won’t wear away as the seat ages. My blog Weaving Splint Chair Seats, April 1, 2016 describes my first foray into flat reed weaving with a chair and footstool. The weaving begins with the warp which is done from front to back.
A diagonal twill pattern was chosen for this seat as it looks very nice in a 5/8″ splints and makes a very sturdy attractive seat.
After the main warp is competed. The weft is begun and as it proceeds the side pieces are woven in.
The woven seat turned out quite well and my client was very pleased.
Following this seat I decided to weave another with the 5/8” flat “smoked reed”. The chair in this example has its original green paint and is a handmade chair of hickory with pine back slats. This is of a similar age as the rawhide seat chair covered in my blog Shabby Chic Restoration of a Rawhide Seat Chair October 17, 2015.
After completing the warp I wove the weft in a pattern of under two over two creating a checkerboard pattern. This pattern is easier weave than the diagonal will and should be a sturdy seat.
I believe the darker “smoked” flat reed color compliments the original green paint rather well.
This brings us now to my Shaker Tape seat. This chair was part of the set of chairs that I purchased that were completely apart see my blog of Reimagined Antique Ladder Back Chairs of August 24, 2015
I had saved some Shaker Cloth tape for years that was maroon and black. According to my calculations I needed some more tape and ordered from Shaker Workshops in Ashburnham, Massachusetts. I always buy my tape from them as it is very high quality and they use it in their Shaker reproductions.
Shaker Tape is made from cotton twill and comes in a wide variety of colors. It is woven similar to the splint seats. Usually two contrasting colors are used when weaving a seat. Instead of diagonal twill I chose to use a checkerboard pattern of over one under one.
Unfortunately when I ordered the tape in black and maroon it was a slightly different shade. Not too surprising as I had this tape for over a decade and I am sure their colors had changed a bit. Rather than ordering more tape which is expensive I decided to go with the difference. I wove the black as the warp as I had more of the newer black tape and the older black tape was not as noticeable woven in this manner. The differences in the maroon weft were more noticeable and I chose to alternate the newer color with the older one. I believe this worked out rather well.
I did not stuff the seat with either cotton batting or a piece of flat foam as most instructions indicate. I am curious to see how this works. Upon consulting several Shaker furniture books it seems that not all of them were originally stuffed.
It is easy to join the tapes together by sewing them with similar color thread by overlapping them about an inch or so. For a seat this is always done on the underside of the chair.
The cloth Shaker Tape made a nice tight seat which should last for years. I believe the seat compliments the color of the chair rather well.
Recently I was called upon to replace the rush seat in a Windsor Chair with arms. These kinds of Windsor Chairs are 1920’s fantasies because authentic Windsor Chairs had solid wood seats.
Originally this chair was woven with natural rush which is a difficult and expensive material to use for chair seats. Currently natural rush seats are only used for the best of antique chairs. The seat in this example was wider than long and had large flat spaces where the seating material was woven over. It was very apparent that the original seat had failed because it was not padded correctly and broke at the edges of the wide seat supports.
Typically these 1920’s fantasy Windsor Chairs have to have the back portion of the seat slightly detached or in this case completely removed in order to weave the seat. This was difficult as the seam where the seat came apart was between the spindles that supported the arm. Also the bowed back and arm frame could not be treated roughly when disassembled or they could easily break rendering the chair useless.
First I drilled out the large wood plugs on the back of the seat. Underneath there are two large screws that hold the back of the screws in place. Then the smaller dowels that also help support the back part of the seat needed to be removed. First I turned the chair over began tapping the exposed edge portion with a rubber mallet and wide wood wedge which only spread the joint out slightly. At this point I could see that the dowel was in at an angle and this could be very difficult to separate the back of the chair. After studying this chair for a while I began to gently try to take in apart with a rubber mallet. This succeeded in loosening the forward arm supports on one side and lifting them up and out of their holes on the other. My goal was to lift out the arm support spindles on each side and then gently work the back away from the chair seat structure. This however was putting a tremendous strain on the bowed back, spindles and curved arm support. Clearly I could not continue with this method and risking ruining the chair. Subsequent efforts loosened the upper ends of the medial spindles from the bow but did not accomplish much else.
Again, more thought and examination. By gently moving the back outwards with a combination of wiggling and gentle taps on the lower spindles with the mallet the joint separated slightly more. At this point it seemed that this was not going to work. I determined that the best course of action would be to cut the dowel. I was afraid to drill out the dowel because I could not accurately determine the angle of the hole that held it. Fortunately, I had a small very thin back saw that fit in the spread open joint perfectly. With careful effort I was able to saw through the dowel on each side without ruining the edges of the joint. Finally the back was off!!
This seat was challenging to weave because of the very wide seat supports that made keeping everything straight and tight. The front of the seat had a bit of a saddle shape as well. While weaving I made sure this seat was correctly padded on both sides with fresh kraft brown cardboard and paper. I applied several coats of clear shellac to protect the seat.
This is my second recent paper rush seat and I am thinking of using a pair of hog ring pliers and 3/8” rings to join the sections of the fiber rush instead of knots or wire.
To reassemble the seat the dowels had to be removed or drilled out. The ones in the separated back portion were fairly easy to push out from the inner side of the seat with a similar sized dowel and hammer. Interestingly enough twist dowels had been used for securing joints and probably would never have loosened up enough to pull the seat back off.
The dowels in the chair part had to be drilled out with a succession of smaller to larger drills as hardwood dowels can be difficult to drill through in one pass. Once the dowels were replaced they were carefully smoothed over as to minimize damage to the finish of the chair. The plugs were made from slightly trimmed down 5/8” dowels and handled in the same way. These were then stained and finished to match the color of the chair.
During the 1920’s there was a great interest in reviving Colonial American furniture. Sometimes fantasy pieces were created such as this Windsor chair with a rush seat. Authentic Windsor chairs had solid wood seats.
Originally this chair had a natural rush seat. Natural rush seating material is made by twisting together several leaves of the cattail plant together to form a strand while weaving the seat. This plant is found in wetland areas and has a broad flat blade like leaf. It has to be carefully harvested and prepared prior to any use as a seat weaving material. When purchased from dealers it can be expensive. Enough to weave an average seat can be around $75.00. Natural rush seat weaving is a very complicated process usually reserved for fine Early American chairs.
Twisted Seagrass Rush Weaving – Beginning Steps
A good substitute is pre-twisted natural seagrass rush. Pre-twisted seagrass rush is a variegated green and tan color that mimics natural rush nicely. Since it is already twisted into a strand and sold by the coil it is much easier to use than real rush. While it is pre-twisted it tends to unravel and must be twisted back together at times. It is also easy to join new strands together by simply tying them in a knot on the underside and hiding that in the weaving. This type of material is prepared by putting it in warm water for a few minutes and then in a damp towel for about fifteen minutes. In a future blog I will discuss seagrass rush weaving.
A third type of material known as fiber rush is made from twisted brown paper strands and is sold by the coil. Like the pre-twisted seagrass rush, the new strands can be tied together with knots and hidden in the weaving on the underside. For this project I chose a 5/32 diameter fiber rush as it matched the other chairs in the set that did not need to have their seats replaced. Paper rush can be woven dry or dampened in warm water for a few minutes. Too much moisture in the fiber rush can cause it to shred. If the rush dries out you can dampen it with water with a sponge or your hand.
“Slot” In Back of Seat Where Rush Disappears
On this type of chair the rush is not woven over all four outside sides but only three. The rush goes through a “slot” in the back of the seat. So, how do you weave this type of seat? If you turn the chair around and look at the back there are four sets of plugged holes.
Four Sets of Holes in Back Of Chair
The two larger ones are plugs for screw holes. The smaller ones are dowel pins. If you remove the screw hole plugs there will be a wood screw at the bottom. Remove these screws to loosen the seat.
Uncovered Screw Hole – Dowel Hole On The Left Side
The back can be moved backwards by gently tapping it with a rubber mallet. I used a wide block of wood and mallet on the underside seam that worked well and caused a minimum of damage. I did not remove the seat entirely so not to damage the spindles or break the dowel pins. I just “pushed it out” enough to get the rush through.
Grooves Along Sides And Front of Chair
Along the sides of the chair were grooves to help hold the rush in place. Since this has wide flat seat rails the seat needed stuffing with cut pieces of cardboard. They are placed along the sides, back and front of the chair rail on both on the top and bottom sides. I also used some brown craft paper from shopping bags as well.
Stuffing a seat makes it more comfortable, keeps the strands in order and will help prevent the rush from splitting at the edges of the rails. This is what usually causes these types of seats to fail.
Broken Area Along Front Rail
After the seat was finished I applied several coats of clear shellac to help preserve it. The back of the seat was then moved back into place with a rubber mallet and padded pipe clamp. Then screws were put back in. I made new screw plugs from short sections of dowel rods and stained them to match.
New Plugs in Back of Seat
Finished Seat Coated With Shellac
Eastlake Style cottage chairs were very popular during the late 19th century in America. These were usually made from walnut wood and have various patterns of machine made geometric designs carved into them. Originally this probably was part of a dining room set of four or six chairs. I only have two of them. I was attracted to this chair because of its openwork and machine carving along its top. Also, it still had its original varnish finish. I wanted to restore this piece back to its original appearance complete with a new hand woven cane seat.
Before I could weave a new seat the old finish had to be cleaned and polished. Once this was done (to be the subject of another blog post) I was ready to cane the seat.
Hand weaving a seat like this one was somewhat complicated. Usually these types of chairs have squared off front sections but this one was curved. This made lining up the first step (front to back) of the seven step weaving pattern rather tricky. For the pattern to look nice the first steps of hand weaving a cane seat have to line up as evenly as possible.
Weaving cane seats by hand is very satisfying to me as you are actually creating the seat and watching it take shape. Hand woven cane seats also last much longer as they are woven thru holes in the seat. It takes about 4-6 hours to weave a seat like this one.
Certain types of ladder back chairs used woven rawhide seats. These are usually found in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. They are very similar to their southeastern cousins that were woven with ash splint or wide cane.
This chair dates to the 1860’s – 1870’s and is made from Hickory with Pine back slats. The ends if the spindles interlock with one another which makes for a sturdy chair. You can usually tell this type of chair had a rawhide strip seat in it because of the impressions made on the top rails from the shrinking of the rawhide. They were often painted or sometimes left a natural color.
This seat was woven with a continuous strip of 50 foot half inch hand cut rawhide that has been soaked in water for several hours until very pliable.
The rawhide has to be very flexible as it goes over the rails and across itself for the weaving pattern. If woven correctly both knots will be in the back of the chair.
Once you are finished you end up with a diamond pattern seat that is very durable. The rawhide used is rather pricey and runs about $65.00.
There is a variation of the rawhide seat that uses a solid piece of rawhide that is folded over the top chair rails and fastened with rawhide strips underneath the seat. I have never worked on one of these but have seen pictures of them. Why this is painted green will be the subject of another blog.
Some of the material used for hand seat weaving, various types of hand cane, rawhide strip and cloth Shaker tape.
Rawhide chair seat woven from one continuous strip of rawhide.
Hand woven kraft paper fiber rush seat.
Hand woven smoked rattan reed splint seat.
Hand woven ash splint seat using thin strands of actual ash wood.
Machine woven cane webbing pressed and glued into a groove routed around seat.
Basic seven step pattern hand woven through holes drilled around the seat.