Wicker and rattan are terms that have been used for centuries, often interchangeably, to describe a style of furniture that has adorned homes from ancient Egypt to modern patios.
While they might seem similar at first glance, there are distinct differences between the two. This article delves deep into the origins, characteristics, and uses of both wicker and rattan, shedding light on their unique attributes and their roles in the world of furniture design.
What Is the Difference Between Rattan & Wicker?
The terms “rattan” or “wicker” often are mistakenly used interchangeably to describe the popular indoor/outdoor furniture that graces patios and summer homes, but rattan is a material used to make the furniture, while wicker is the technique that involves weaving natural materials such as bamboo and willow, often into intricate patterns–a process that used as far back as ancient Egypt.
- Wicker–a weaving process that uses bamboo, reeds, rushes or willow–is an ancient technique. Wicker baskets and stools have been found in ancient Egypt and among the ash-covered ruins of Pompeii. These days, the same weaving techniques are being used with recycled materials to create eco-friendly furniture and home furnishings.
- Rattan is produced from a jungle vine found extensively in Southeast Asia. The strong, solid cane with its vertical grain is harvested, cut into lengths and often steamed to shape into curves. The cane is used to make the sturdy indoor/outdoor furniture popular in tropical climates, while rattan peel, the “skin” of the vine, is stripped and soaked to make the thin, pliable strips that bind the rattan poles together when the peel dries.
Durability and Versatility
- Rattan is very strong and comes in a variety of natural colors, but the cane can be painted–Victorians like to paint the rattan to resemble bamboo canes, so-called “faux bamboo” painting on bamboo’s distinctive rings.
- Old rattan and wicker furniture can command high prices in antique sales–notably Victorian wicker and vintage rattan pieces made in the Philippines or Hawaiian Islands and dating from the 1940s and 1950s. The rattan pieces often have colorful bark-cloth cushions with tropical designs.
WHAT IS WICKER?
Any product that is made with woven vines or stems is referred to as wicker. The word wicker is believed to be of Scandinavian origin, coming from the words wika, which means “to bend” in Swedish, and vikker, meaning “willow.”
The rattan vine, the material traditionally used for making wicker products in this country for the past 150 years, is still the most highly sought after material for wicker furniture. Rattan plants are climbing palms found only in the rain forests of Southeast and East Asia, Africa, and South and Central America. The highest quality rattan is the honey rattan of Southeast Asia.
When good quality materials are used and the vines are woven properly, rattan woven furniture should last 100 years or more with normal use. Some wicker antiques of the Victorian period are still in use today. The oldest surviving pieces of wicker furniture date from the Egyptian Empire. These pieces include chests made of reed and papyrus, wig boxes made of reed and rush, and wicker hassocks and chairs.
Wicker’s durability comes from the properties of the material. A rattan vine, which can be cut into various widths and shapes, is filled with fibers running lengthwise through it, giving the vine the strength of multi-strand cable. A vine will bend, but unlike wood, it will not splinter or break. Many Americans, who are accustomed to wood furniture, mistake wicker’s flexibility for weakness.
Converting the fourteen-foot lengths of harvested vines into a piece of finished furniture involves a number of processes, virtually all of them done by hand. The thorny leaves of the vines are removed by pulling each length across a forked stick driven into the ground. Bundles of rattan are floated down the river through the jungle to the sea, where the material is cured in the sun before it is shipped to the factory. At the factory or at the wholesaler’s, machines cut the vines into all kinds of shapes.
The smooth, strong outer skin, or “cane,” is often used to make chair seats, known as “cane seats.” Cane is usually woven by a machine. Workers prefer to work with rattan core products that are still a bit green and pliable; but if the material becomes dried out and rigid, they simply soak it for a few minutes until it regains its flexibility. When steamed, rattan vines can be bent and twisted. As the material cools and dries after steaming, it gains rigidity. After drying, wicker will maintain its molded shape permanently.
In its original form, rattan is a relative of the tropical palm tree. Rattan starts to grow upwards like a tree, but then bends back to the ground and snakes through the rain forest like a vine. After a few years of growth, the rattan vines are cut into 12 to 18 foot (about 3.7 to 5.5 meters) sections and hauled away for drying.
Rattan is considered to be one of the strongest woods available, since its grain grows vertically instead of forming the concentric rings of most other hardwoods. The straight rattan is usually steamed and then bent into the desired shape through the use of specialized shapers. Once the rattan has dried, it will retain its shape forever. These rattan poles are often used to form the frames of what will become rattan or wicker furniture.
Here’s where the difference between rattan and wicker lies. Rattan is a specific material, but wicker is the general process of weaving rattan or other materials into finished goods.
There is no material on Earth called wicker. Some manufacturers may even use the phrase cane furniture in place of either rattan or wicker. It is essentially the same thing as wicker, but the material used in the weaving may or may not be rattan.
Rattan vines may also be peeled mechanically to form thin slats for weaving. The curved outer layer is also used as a decorative trim to hide the rough seams created by the wicker process. Bamboo may also be used for trim, but rarely as a form. Bamboo is hollow, which means it often cracks when steamed and bent. Rattan is solid, which makes it an ideal material for the lightweight but solid furniture we commonly call wicker.
What is Rattan?
The earliest piece of wicker that has been found was in Egypt and dated back to 1400 B.C. Rattan has been used for centuries for forming many tools for fishing, planting, harvesting and construction of homes and furniture. In the late 1800’s when rattan and wicker became more readily available, the popularity of wicker and rattan became more apparent. Rattan is a member of the palm family (or the Genus Clamu).
Rattan grows in a long slender stem, which maintains an almost uniform diameter throughout its length. It grows in a manner similar to a vine, but has an inner core and is not hollow like bamboo.
The shade in the rain forests is very dense and climbing on tree limbs is the most practical way for the vines to reach the light above the forest canopy. The outer portion of the stem is extremely hard and durable while the inner portion of the stem is softer and somewhat porous. There is no harvesting season for rattan, it grows year round.
Harvesting can be difficult due to the landscape and inaccessibility of the jungle. The diameter and length of the rattan according to the specie of rattan and can be as long as 600 feet, however they are cut into 12 – 15 lengths and tied into large bundles to make the journey from jungle to processing area. The stems and the outer protective layer of the rattan are then removed by hand.
The poles are fumigated and then left on end “teepee” style to dry. The poles are then extruded through a machine to produce wicker to be used for weaving into the frame. The large poles are used for the construction of the frame
In the vast realm of furniture, wicker and rattan hold a special place, echoing ancient traditions and adapting to modern needs. Their versatility, durability, and timeless appeal make them favorites among homeowners and designers alike. While they might be intertwined in popular vocabulary, understanding the nuances between wicker and rattan can enhance one’s appreciation for these art forms. Whether you’re an enthusiast, a collector, or someone looking to add a touch of nature to your space, the world of wicker and rattan offers endless possibilities.