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Table, chairs and pot made from rattan
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Gardenman

The history of rattan garden furniture

Published: April 28, 2022 at 7:16 pm

Its synonymous with our garden leisure lifestyles, but what exactly is rattan and where has it come from? Diana Woolf explores the history of rattan

What is rattan garden furniture?

Rattan or wicker?

Although the two words are often used as synonymous, rattan and wicker are different. Rattan is a plant, while wicker is the traditional technique used to weave rattan – as well as other natural materials including straw, bamboo and willow – into objects. Indigenous to the tropical forests of Southeast Asia, Calamus rotang – also known as common rattan – is a vine-like relative of the palm family. Over the ages it has been used to make furniture, baskets, plates, boxes and more recently, and perhaps more surprisingly, artificial bones.

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Rattan garden furniture is made by weaving lengths of rattan around a frame; originally this was made from wood, but today the frames are often made from a lightweight aluminium. The vertical strands are attached first and then the horizontal strands are threaded between them to build up a strong woven material covering the entire frame. Differences in the colour of the rattan strands create a pleasing natural effect which is particularly suited to a garden setting.

Close up of rattan weaving pattern
© Navinpeep/Getty Images

What is the history of rattan garden furniture?

Long used in Southeast Asia, rattan was introduced into the West as trade with Asia expanded along with the British Empire. It became popular with the Victorians who saw it as a fashionably exotic material; its durability and strength were other factors in its favour. Although rattan furniture never entirely fell out of fashion, its association with traditional crafts made it less appealing to early 20th century modernists. However in the 1960s and 70s rattan had a renaissance and was associated with bohemian-style interiors and a relaxed arts and crafts style aesthetic. Since then it has become increasingly fashionable as the development of synthetic rattan has meant that it is a particularly suitable material for garden furniture.

Why is rattan garden furniture so popular today?

Rattan garden furniture’s appeal lies in its attractive pairing of organic good looks, thanks to its natural woven fibres, and stylish contemporary design. This combination of the rustic with the modern means that rattan furniture looks very much at home in today’s gardens and, if so desired, interiors.

Rattan is also an extremely practical material. It’s strong, but lightweight and so easy to move from one area of a garden to another, or can easily be moved into a conservatory where it will look equally at home. And perhaps more importantly, it is extremely comfortable thanks to the woven structure and flexibility of the fibres.

Eco-friendly coffins made from rattan, banana stems, and water hyacinth
Eco-friendly coffins made from rattan, banana stems, and water hyacinth © Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Synthetic rattan

Synthetic rattan, sometimes known as all-weather rattan, is made out of man-made materials such as polyethylene or resin. Garden furniture made using synthetic rattan looks very similar to natural as the man-made fibres are woven in the same way as the plant fibres. However, as the fibres are normally treated with UV additives, synthetic rattan garden furniture is more long lasting and is completely weatherproof.

Rattan texture
Rattan texture © Getty Images

How to care for rattan garden furniture

Natural rattan will fade over time if constantly exposed to the weather so it is best to protect it with waterproof covers when not in use. These will prevent it from harmful UV rays and will also keep the rattan dry and so stop mould from forming. If mould does begin to appear it is easy to wash off by using soapy water and then wiping the surface dry with a cloth. A stiff brush can be used to get into awkward corners. Synthetic rattan can be washed in the same way. Waterproof covers will also protect any cushions.

Both synthetic and natural rattan garden furniture should be stored in a cool, dry shed or indoors during the winter months.

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For a wide selection of modern garden rattan furniture head to Gardenman.co.uk

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