Seat Weavers Guild gathering keeps traditional art alive

Long before I wanted to be a journalist, I wanted to be a woodworker or maybe a weaver.

Those were the crafts that fascinated me as a kid, growing up around pioneer festivals in rural Illinois. My mom and grandma would braid hair and make soap and sachets. All around us, traditional artists worked, weaving baskets, whittling, spinning and caning chairs.

David Dick was the guy known for chair caning back home.

A few weeks ago, he sent a news release to the Brown County Democrat announcing the Seat Weavers Guild Inc. annual convention at the Abe Martin Lodge and inviting the media to observe.

I can’t say I was all that excited about touring the featured exhibit, “Seat Weaving Through the Ages.” But it’s not often I see people from Paris, Illinois, in Brown County, Indiana. And I did have a couple of heirloom chairs with broken seats. So I asked if I could bring one along and learn to fix it.

That’s how I ended up spending an hour talking about chairs with David’s son, Andy, whom I probably said four words to in the entire four years we spent in high school.

Alphabetically, we were neighbors in chemistry class. I, however, was a nerd, and Andy played football; so our interaction was pretty limited to asking if he could grab the pencil I had dropped under his chair.

Andy is now an anesthesiologist at Schneck Medical Center in Jackson County. I can spell anesthesiologist, so we had that going for us.

He also repairs chairs on the side. It’s a craft he learned from his dad when he was 4 or 5 years old, around the time my mom was teaching me how to crochet and braid.

His dad had learned from his mother’s grandfather over a weekend in the ’70s. A couple of days later, that relative died. “So, my dad felt like he should probably carry it on,” Andy said.

“Did you do this in high school?” I asked. “Or was that uncool?”

He pulled a pen from his shirt pocket. It read: “Chair nerd.”

“Oh, it’s always been uncool and continues to be,” he said with a smile.

Every year, chair nerds unite at guild meetings. They learn things like how to repair wicker. They talk about helpful tools of the trade; discuss how to charge for work; work through how to fix problems they might encounter with a project.

At the Brown County gathering, they also offered a novice class, “Come weave a footstool.”

Richard Hall was helping teach. He learned to weave at the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina about 15 years ago. Now, he and other guild members are working to preserve the art and the tradition.

“You can take three books that have been written, and each one of them, it’ll tell you something different,” he said. “It’s not like it’s wrong; it’s just not like there’s one certain, set way to do it. It can be done 100 different ways.

“There is a way it can be done better,” he added, “but that doesn’t make it the best way. If you do all the right things, the seat will last longer, it’ll look better, and it will be more comfortable, more pleasing to the eye.

“Or you can put the seat in, and it’ll keep your butt off the floor, which is basically the purpose of the thing to start with.”

Apparently, my chair was done with the “put the seat in” technique.

Andy brought out a square of already-woven seat material, called pressed cane. I thought I’d actually be learning to weave, but the chair wasn’t designed that way.

To do that, the chair would have needed holes to string the warp through. Instead, it has a channel that the pressed cane is pounded into. Then, the cane is glued into the channel and plugged with a roundish length of reed, called a spline.

Andy said he sees a lot of old chairs being converted like this. He’ll repair them, but it’s not his favorite thing.

“That just feels kind of like checking the boxes, or whatever, and this feels more like a craft,” he said, motioning to the handwoven chairs on display.

It can take Hall 10 to 12 hours to completely reweave a seat using the traditional seven-step pattern. That’s why repairs can be so expensive.

“Time today is something like I only have a limited amount of it left, and I’m not going to give it away unless it’s something worthy,” Hall said.

Passing on his knowledge is one of those things.

He walked to a project in progress — a reproduction of a 19th-century Hitchcock-style chair with a seat of twisted craft paper. “We want to keep these lines, see how nice and straight that is there? The tension on it? That doesn’t really seem like it would be important until you’ve had this chair for about 20 years and it starts breaking down.

“There’s people out there that their father taught them. And what they do, there’s nothing wrong with it. But compared to the better way, there might be some things that they do because they were never shown. … So, when the chair fails, that’s probably where it’s going to fail. … And if you go back and check your father’s chairs, they probably failed in the same place.”

Putting a new seat on an old chair doesn’t decrease its value, Hall said, because an old chair with a bad seat is useless, except for decorating a corner.

“I have fixed chairs up and had people cry about it, because to them, that chair means something,” he said.

He passed his hand over the broken cane of a child’s chair in the exhibit.

“Can you just imagine how many little fannies have sat in that chair, and all the commotion that went on around them, and the people and the things that were talked about?

“That’s history right there. That’s somebody’s memory. And the fact that you could restore that and put that memory back to them, that’s a wonderful thing.”

My materials arrived in the mail about a week later.

I waited until after bedtime to gather my tools and notes, when the swirling commotion in my house had died down somewhat.

Andy had told me I’d need a tack hammer. I couldn’t find any kind of hammer, not even the toy mallet I am continually confiscating. I did, however, find a meat tenderizer. How’s that for tools of the trade?

Apparently I didn’t write down the step where I was supposed to cut out the general shape and size of cane for the chair before even soaking it. That would have made the trimming part at the end much easier.

But after about an hour, I had an old chair with a new seat.

And the next day after the glue was dry, all three of my boys climbed on it and over each other to sit in each other’s laps.

Andy said a good caning job may last 10 to 20 years. I hope mine’s good enough to support another generation of little fannies. Just think of all the people and the things that will be talked about in that time, in that chair at our kitchen table.

Brown County Democrat Editor Sara Clifford welcomes comments at 812-988-2221 or [email protected]

Keep your seat in shape

Seat Weavers Guild Inc. President Richard Hall offered the following tips to extend the life of woven-seat chairs:

  • Keep the chair out of the sun and away from continuous drafts like air vents. They dry out the cane, which he described as a “living material.”
  • Do not paint the cane. That suffocates it.
  • About once a year, spray some lemon oil Pledge on a rag and run it over the top of the seat.
  • If the seat starts sagging, you can refresh its “memory” by dipping a towel in warm water, wringing it out and placing it over the woven material (not the wood surrounding the seat). Let it sit for a couple hours, take it off and let the seat dry, and the cane should spring back up. “You can only do that a couple of times, because it’s going to stretch out to where, it’s just like us old people: The memory gets a little thin,” he said.