What is wicker?

wicker chair
Wicker started out small -- just boxes and baskets.
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As one of the oldest forms of furniture craftsmanship, wicker has captured the hearts of everyone from the average Joe to past presidents. In the White House, President John F. Kennedy had a prized rocking chair fitted with a seat and back of woven rattan, one of the materials used to make wicker furniture [source: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum].

Some of the oldest surviving specimens of woven chests and boxes made of dried palms or reeds have been found in the ancient Egyptian pyramids, while ancient Syrian statues depicting wicker crafts have also been found [source: Olsson and Saunders]. These wicker crafts spread throughout Asia and Europe. Early U.S. settlers brought wicker craft knowledge from their homelands.


Yet, it was not until one young American took the old adage -- one man's trash is another man's treasure -- that the large-scale wicker industry was launched in the United States. In the1840s, a young man named Cyrus Wakefield observed rattan, used for packing material around ships' cargo, being cast off of ships in the Boston harbor [source: Adamson]. He saw the rattan's potential as a raw material for furniture manufacturing and made a career from selling both the material and the furniture made from it.

By the 1850s, wicker furniture was growing in popularity as a functional piece of art in America. From 1865 to 1880, the majority of wicker furniture was only for indoor use, but slowly it started moving outdoors [source: Saunders]. As tastes evolved, manufacturers began to offer specialized items such as baby carriages and music stands along with painted pieces.

Due to new design trends and materials, wicker's popularity waned in the 1930s. Yet, the style and comfort were rediscovered by the 1970s and continue to be popular today [source: Adamson, Olsson and Saunders]. According to the American Institute of Architects' Home Design Trends Survey, homeowners are increasingly interested in expanding their living space outward [source: Baker]. Wicker has been a great option for outdoor living since the Victorian times, and with new advances in technology, it's an even more logical choice for today's patios and porches.

In this article, we will take a closer look at what makes this unique weaving style work and how it continues to appeal to consumers today.


Wicker 101

Wicker is not, as some may think, an actual plant from which certain furniture is made. It's actually the term for any piece of woven furniture.

Creating a piece of wicker furniture uses many techniques that are also used in basketry [source: Miller and Widess]. The weaves are made up of spokes, or vertical supports, and weavers, which are the horizontal strands. In order to be shaped or made pliable, reed, one of the most common materials used in wicker furniture, must be soaked in warm water. The thickness of the material will dictate how long it needs to soak before it can be used to create the weave pattern for a particular piece [source: Saunders].


Due to the individual nature and age of wicker craftsmanship, there have been a variety of weave variations used to create unique patterns. The most standard weave is the simple over-and-under, which is similar to weaving a rug. This technique consists of going over one spoke and under the next. Along the edges, the weave is likely to change to a form of braiding intertwining two to four pieces at a time [source: Gonyea].

Caning, which generally refers to weaving seats and backs only, incorporates different types of weaves. These weaves can range from a simple open weave leaving large stop-sign shaped openings throughout the piece to an intricate snowflake weave that predominately uses hexagon-shapes [source: Miller and Widess].

Using combinations of weaves, intricate patterns are produced to form the piece. Some wicker patterns are so detailed that actual images are created out of the weaving such as flags, hearts and even guitars [source: Saunders, Olsson and Saunders].

The actual materials used to create these pieces of woven furniture are diverse. Let's take a closer look at the two different types of wicker furniture.


Natural Wicker

There are two general types of wicker furniture: natural and synthetic. While both still use weaving as the main construction method for the pieces, the final products differ greatly.

Natural wickers can be made out of rattan, willow, sea grass and raffia. For a time, wicker was even made from spun paper about the size of pipe cleaners [source: Gonyea]. One of the most popular materials, rattan, is the stem or trunk of a climbing palm. The plant uses its spines to climb and wind itself up nearby trees [source: Miller and Widess]. The rattan can grow up to 600 feet (almost 183 meters) in length [source: Adamson]. The outer layer is called cane, and the inner bark is reed [source: Saunders]. It's important to note that one piece of furniture may incorporate many different types of materials.


Natural wicker furniture has been popular for years because of its feel and look. Due to its woven nature, wicker furniture offers a certain amount of elasticity. Steven Cyr, owner of CottageWicker.com says, "They [his clients] find the chairs especially comfortable because wicker gives a bit as compared to a wood chair. It gives you that feeling that you are settling in."

Along with the feel, natural wicker also has a large potential for creativity. Not only do the different patterns offer possibilities, but the natural hue of the wicker furniture can also be customized. According to Wes Spryshak, vice-president of sales for Ficks Reed, the natural fiber of the chairs is much like unfinished wood. After being sanded and sealed, the chairs can be stained or painted in an array of colors. "There's a beauty, depth and warmth that you can't achieve in any other way," says Spryshak.

While the look and feel of natural wicker may be appealing, most of these products are made to be enjoyed only indoors and out of direct sunlight. Some companies are offering moisture-resistant or weather-resistant coatings to make natural wicker pieces more screened- or covered-porch friendly.

To maintain your natural wicker, Cyr recommends dusting the pieces and then cleaning them using a diluted solution of Murphy Oil Soap and water. This is meant to give the furniture a slight glossy shine. For brittle pieces made of willow or reed, a soak with water will help the piece gain back some of its supple nature [source: Saunders].

Now, let's take a look at the newer type of wicker furniture, synthetic wicker.


Synthetic Wicker

outdoor wicker
Synthetic wicker is perfect for outdoor furniture. Would you like to sit here?
Alberto Coto/Photodisc/Getty Images

A new type of woven furniture has emerged onto the market called synthetic or man-made wicker. These pieces of wicker furniture are usually made of resin or vinyl, which is basically a form of plastic [sources: Spryshak, Laneventure].The resin or vinyl is made into very thin strips and then woven to cover the furniture's frame, usually a lightweight metal such as aluminum. Some companies use pre-colored resin. Instead of painting it after the furniture is completed, the color is actually integrated into each strip of the resin, which adds to weather-resistance and reduces fading [source: Spryshak]. Synthetic wicker comes in a range of colors from dark brown to white.

Due to its chemical makeup, the synthetic wicker is suitable for outdoor furniture. It can stand up to moisture and the ultraviolet rays of the light [source: Spryshak]. Synthetic wicker furniture also requires very limited maintenance. If a piece gets dirty, it can simply be hosed off with water. For tougher grime, wash with a mild soap.


To add warmth and comfort to a synthetic wicker piece, many companies offer outdoor fabrics for cushions. Many outdoor fabrics are fade-resistant and water-resistant, along with being easy to clean [source: Spryshak, Laneventure].

Whether you're interested in synthetic wicker or natural wicker, much like other furniture types, wicker comes in a range of qualities, price points and styles. Wicker's versatility allows it to be adapted to a myriad of styles from a white wicker rocker for a beach-themed room to a dark brown synthetic chaise for a contemporary outdoor lounge. Yet, according to Spryshank, there's a trend away from traditional styles, to more of a transitional style, but not quite to the contemporary, boxy look. Cyr agrees, noting that people are staying away from the more ornate Victorian wicker pieces and choosing simple, classic shapes.

Throughout the centuries, wicker furniture has been treasured for its many unique qualities and great adaptability. The next generation's creativity and innovative spirit are the only limitations on the future of wicker furniture.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Adamson, Jeremy. American Wicker: Woven Furniture from 1850 to 1930. Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. 1993.
  • Baker, Kermit PhD, Hon. AIA. The American Institute of Architects. "As Housing Market Weakens, Homes Are Getting Smaller." (April 30,2009)http://info.aia.org/aiarchitect/thisweek08/0606/0606b_htdsq2.cfm
  • Cyr, Steven. Owner of CottageWicker.com. Personal Interview. April 21, 2009.
  • Ecoffins USA. "Coffins & Caskets." (April 23, 2009)http://www.ecoffinsusa.com/
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