Many properties rely on rattan furniture for their garden, but it’s soaring in popularity for use inside the home too.

However, rather than being the modern phenomenon that many people view wicker and rattan as, it’s a material which has been around for many hundreds of years.

But what exactly is rattan and how has it been used throughout the ages? We take a closer look at this surprisingly strong natural material.

What is rattan?

Found in its natural habitat of tropical jungles around the world, rattan is a type of trailing vine which is a member of the palm family. There are several hundred species which are indigenous to areas such as China, Indonesia, south east Asia, and the Philippines in particular.

The rattan vines are easily identifiable as they are far stronger than other plants. Typically one to two inches in diameter, the vines grow rapidly and are quickly replenished after being cut down. Left to grow unchecked they can reach up to 200-500 feet in length.

Despite its impressive length the diameter of the vine remains more or less constant throughout, not thinning as it grows. There’s a tough outer stem which is extremely tough, whilst the innermost part is soft and porous. The outer part of the rattan vine is amongst the hardest plant materials which can be found in the world.

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Rattan vine

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Rattan can be harvested all year round but collection can be challenging because of the nature of the vine, and also the landscape it grows in.

It won’t break or split, so it’s cut down into strips between 12-15 feet in length, which are then bundled and transported to factories where the parts are processed further.

Rattan is considered to be an almost indestructible substance and one which despite its delicate appearance would match the strength of steel.

What rattan isn’t…

As described above, rattan is a type of plant vine which can be processed into canes and strip which are suitable for weaving to make furniture. The technique which is used to produce this furniture is known as wickerwork.

Wicker furniture can be made from all types of materials, not just rattan. Only rattan wicker furniture has the unique qualities such as strength and toughness. Other wicker furniture may be made from materials such as reeds, willow or bamboo and despite having a similar appearance will be far weaker.

Bamboo and rattan in particular often get confused, particularly as they originate from similar parts of the world. However, bamboo is hollow and has nowhere near the strength of rattan.

Some pieces of furniture may be made from bamboo but have rattan poles to add core strength to the design. This has contributed to the confusion between the two very different plants.

When was rattan first used?

There’s no exact proof about when rattan was first used but evidence suggests it was originally harvested in Indonesia, one of the main places it can still be found, and eventually reached China, where it then moved on to Japan.

Wickerwork in general - not specifically rattan - has a long history too and can be found in many of the myths of some of the most primitive societies.

rattan basket

A vintage rattan bag, this is a popular style in Japan

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One old belief which came from the Potawatami Indians suggested that a woman lived on the moon who was busy weaving a basket; when the basket was finished it was prophesied that the world would end. Thankfully a dog interrupted her progress (a lunar eclipse) and this destroyed the basket, forcing her to start over again and earning the world a reprieve, albeit temporary.

The Sumerian civilisation in 4000BC contains some of the earliest evidence of wickerwork where it was used for a huge range of purposes including flooring, shelter, clothing, transportation, utensils and, much like today, furnishings.

Ancient Egyptians and Roman societies were both found to use wicker in the same way, with some examples of their handiwork remaining intact to this day.

Modern techniques for wickerwork obviously use technology to shorten the process, but the very interesting fact remains that despite advances in science, the same basic weaving methods and construction is still used today.

Discovering rattan

Although many of these societies and civilisations used wicker techniques, many of them may not have been using rattan as a material.

The techniques and design of wicker grew and expanded across the continents but many countries may have been relying on weaker materials such as reed, rush and willow.

It was the Age of Exploration, which began in the early 15th century, which really introduced the much stronger material of rattan to the rest of the world.

Europeans rulers were seeking to find alternative routes to Asia, in a bid to avoid the traditional Silk Road which was treacherous and often closed in parts due to conflict. The primary reason was to gain cheaper, fast and safer access to the much sought-after spice market, but a byproduct of this quest was that rattan made it to Europe.

It was during this time that Europeans discovered they could make their wickerwork far stronger by using rattan instead of the materials they had previously been using.

Wickerwork was extremely popular in Europe and over the next few centuries, demand continued to grow. In some cases, the finished furniture was imported from countries such as China but there was also a blossoming interest in the rattan itself

It wasn’t until the 18th century when the next phase of rattan development really started, when supply was temporarily cut off from China. In order to be able to fulfil demand, the inner core of rattan started being explored, where before it was previously discarded. Pioneers of the time such as Cyrus Wakefield discovered that beautiful but immensely strong wickerwork could be produced by using the inner core, instead of the outer shell.

Up until this time, the inner core had been used for inconsequential means, such as hold the ship’s cargo in place.

Cyrus Wakefield, a US grocer, collected an armful of this discarded material from his local docks and took it home for experimentation. From this he created a rocking chair.

Wakefield’s discovery was set to reinvent wickerwork and in 1855 he set up a successful rattan company in Massachusetts, which went on to become one of the leading manufacturers in the field, The Wakefield Rattan Company.

In 1897, Wakefield’s company merged with a wooden chair specialist, Heywood Chair Manufacturing Company. This was considered to be a dream move as the latter had recently invented a way to mechanically weave wicker seating.

The new company, the Heywood-Wakefield of Gardner, Massachusetts would become one of the most established and prestigious rattan and wickerwork companies in the US.

The British Empire

As part of Europe, the UK had been fans of wicker and rattan for some time, and were active participants as it started to flourish in the 15th and 16th centuries.

However, demand for rattan furniture was undoubtedly fed by Brits returning from colonies overseas with a tranche of trendy wicker furniture.

Because of the comparatively chilly and damp climate in the UK, the furniture had to be brought into the house to survive. And thus, the appetite for rattan furniture was spawned.

Victorian prints and publications demonstrate the demand for rattan furniture, particularly amongst the upper classes. With many living in colonial countries overseas, particular in and around Asia. Rattan was viewed as an exotic luxury which was an asset to any household.

Evolving designs

With rattan firmly established in many cultures around the world, there were certain key individuals who sought to extend its use in continuously innovative ways.

Paul Frankl, born in 1886 in Vienna, Austria is one such person who is credited with introducing more modern rattan designs to the US. His unique square-pretzel seating design was copied by so many different rattan manufacturers; it has become a classic which is still popular today.

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A modern rattan magazine rack

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During the 1930s and 1940s rattan became one of the most popular materials, used for an increasing range of designs such as bookcases, curved seating, dining tables, sofas, beds, desks, shelves and sideboards, and much more besides.

The use of rattan and wicker techniques in the last 70-80 years has continuously reinvented itself with the industry broadening its styles, application and ultimately its appeal, particularly in the last decade or two of the 20th century.

Rattan in the future

As a vine which grows quickly and in abundance and once harvested, is able to replenish itself incredibly quickly, rattan is considered to be a truly eco-friendly and sustainable material for use.

Added to its supreme strength and toughness, it’s expected that rattan will continue to be in demand for the foreseeable future, with perhaps an even greater increase in its use.

The incredible toughness of the material has also sparked an interest in the world of science who is exploring its use in their areas, outside home decor.

One of the research projects receiving the most attention is the possibility of using rattan in the human body. Studies have shown that when heated with carbon and calcium, rattan can be transformed into artificial bone. It has already been successfully implanted into a sheep and it’s hoped that it will be available for general use in medicine - for humans - by 2015.

Synthetic rattan

Despite the many uses for rattan and its undeniable qualities, there is a problem with using natural rattan for furniture, particularly that destined for use in the UK.

One of the largest suppliers of raw rattan to the rest of the world, Indonesia, closed its doors to exports in a bid to encourage local manufacturers to ship out their finished designs rather than just the materials.

This decision taken by the Indonesian government also safeguards the stocks and supplies of the rattan vine, particularly as demand for the raw product increased from overseas.

These kinds of concerns over reliability together with some of the limitations of natural rattan has led to the production and use of a synthetic rattan instead.

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Viro-fiber synthetic rattan furniture seen close-up

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This synthetic product, often known as PU rattan, is now the primary material used in the production of rattan furniture. This circumvents the problem with supply and demand and ensures that there won’t be a permanent shortage in the industry.

There’s no denying the fundamental qualities of rattan which are quite simply unmatched in the natural world. However, the synthetic rattan is almost undetectable from the real thing and provides a far greater degree of control over the finished product.

Natural rattan is fine in more tropical climates but has a problem in the UK, when faced with damp and colder conditions.

Rattan is very vulnerable to the wet and even after being treated is not suitable for use in the garden. As there is a particularly high demand for rattan furniture for the garden, it was necessary to come up with an alternative material which was equally as strong but offered enhanced protection against the elements.

Synthetic rattan is unaffected by extremes of temperature, and also won’t crack, split or stretch when it gets wet. It is in fact entirely waterproof. It’s also UV resistant so won’t fade or degrade if Britain has a hot summer.

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Large outdoor rattan storage

These qualities mean that you don’t need to put your rattan furniture into storage in the winter months but instead, can leave it in your garden all year round. The upholstery which often is supplied with rattan furniture is typically showerproof but should be protected from the full force of inclement weather. Simply removing these pads and cushions but leaving the main piece of the material is sufficient.

Synthetic rattan is indistinguishable from the natural product, and certainly offers the same strength and toughness, with the added convenience of being more durable and easier to maintain. Garden furniture simply needs a quick spray with the hose to keep clean whilst rattan furniture used indoors can be kept in tip-top condition with a hoover or a duster.

rattan furniture on display

Rattan is a popular material for the garden

Rattan, or a synthetic version of it, is here to stay and its use in the decor market is predicted to continue to grow.

Image Credits: Wikipedia,Idalia Patino-Robinson, Cakan Ramverk and Garden Furniture Centre