Wicker furniture has been around for a long time and can complement a variety of decor styles. Although often associated with garden or conservatory furniture, wicker and rattan furniture can be used all over the house, particularly in rooms where resistance to moisture is required. Screen Shot 2014-12-04 at 15.59.18

Rattan conservatory furniture

But should you look for rattan or wicker when purchasing furniture with the distinctive woven design? Are the terms just different marketing techniques or is there in fact any difference between the two? We delve more deeply into the subject and examine what the differences are between wicker and rattan furniture.

What exactly is rattan?

Before we look at the differences between wicker and rattan it’s worth first taking a look at exactly what rattan is. Rattan belongs to the palm family and there are hundreds of different species of it, with a great variety in how it looks and grows. Some types of rattan have relatively short stems or grow underground whilst others push up to heights of a hundred metres or more. This latter species is the type of rattan which is used for furniture making, and has a long sturdy stem covered with an outer skin. This vine is considered one of the strongest natural materials in existence and can rival concrete and even steel. It’s this pole which is used in furniture making and its innate strength is what makes it such a good choice. When the rattan is harvested, these poles are cut into much smaller lengths and may be steamed to provide a greater variety of shapes. The outer skin is not discarded; it is typically used as a binding to wrap the joints of the furniture together. Rattan is a tropical vine and much of it can be found in the rain forests of Indonesia but some also grows in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh and the Philippines. Rattan is considered an extremely sustainable resource because of its ability to replenish quickly, growing several feet in just 24 hours, a significant contrast to timber which is slow to regrow. It’s also easier to harvest and to transport and for these reasons it’s often considered as a better alternative to wood. The rattan furniture industry is growing rapidly and worth billions of dollars every year. Some villages rely almost entirely on their income from rattan to be able to survive. Because of its availability, ease of collection and natural qualities, rattan furniture is a very popular item all over the world.

What is wicker?

A piece of furniture can be made from rattan, but it may simultaneously be wicker too. This is because wicker is not actually a material, but a term used to describe an ancient process of weaving. Wicker simply refers to the centuries-old technique of fashioning items out of natural materials. This could refer to rattan but could also include willow, rush, straw, bamboo or other natural plants or vines. Screen Shot 2014-12-04 at 16.00.22

An example of a wicker catpole

Image Source Seeing an item labelled as wicker in a shop or online, is therefore not as informative as you may think. It just means that the item has been made from a natural material, or a synthetic variant, and woven into place. These materials are typically wetted after they are harvested so they may be bent into place, forming a solid piece of furniture after they dry.

The importance of checking

When you buy a piece of wicker furniture, unless you know what it’s made from, you will have no way of knowing how long it is likely to last or its strength. Wicker furniture can vary very significantly because of the wide variety of materials from which it can be made. Rattan furniture is the strongest of them all, and offers the greatest durability so is the material which is the most desirable when buying a piece of wicker furniture. If an item is described as wicker, you should therefore always also check the material itself before considering making a purchase. Only then can you determine the type of use it will be most suitable for. It’s far preferable to stick to purchases which are described as rattan, because then you can be certain of getting the strength you need.

Synthetic

It’s worth mentioning that not all pieces of rattan furniture are made from the natural vine; in fact, the synthetic version is often more easily found, and desirable too. Because rattan is a tropical vine, it doesn’t hold up well to the British weather so the natural product must be kept indoors. But because rattan is often wanted for garden furniture, a synthetic version has been produced. Synthetic rattan can be used in a far greater number of conditions and can withstand not just the rain, but the cold and frost of the winter without degrading. If its UV treated, it can also be left out in the sun without fear of fading. Synthetic rattan can be easily washed with water or a damp cloth and there are no worries that it may rot or break down. For these reasons synthetic rattan is used both for furniture which is intended for outdoor use but also rattan which is going to be kept inside too. Conclusion Whether you are looking for a rattan sofa for your lounge, a chair for your bedroom or a table and chairs for use on the decking outside, you can rely on rattan to provide you with an elegant yet durable piece of furniture. Screen Shot 2014-12-04 at 16.01.35

Rattan tables and chairs

Image Source Wicker furniture may look good but unless it’s made from rattan you will have no guarantees over its strength, reliability or its suitability for use both indoors and out. The distinctive woven design of wicker furniture is as sought after now as it was centuries ago, but to be certain you’re getting the best of contemporary strength and sustainability too, it's wise to opt for rattan too.

Image Credit: Wikipedia