Wickerwork: A Centuries-Old Craft with a Modern Twist


Wickerwork has been with us since ancient times. Its story stretches across millennia, cultures, and continents—from traditional techniques honed over generations to new innovations that push the craft forward. The materials may change, but the basket-like forms remain enduring symbols of functionality, beauty, and tradition.

Key Takeaways

  • Wickerwork originated in Mesopotamia over 7,000 years ago and was an important craft in early civilizations.
  • Traditional wickerwork involves weaving pliable plant materials like willow, rattan, and reed into baskets, furniture, and structures.
  • Modern wicker incorporates a variety of materials and manufacturing methods while still drawing on antique crafting styles.
  • Wickerwork serves practical and aesthetic purposes from utility baskets to elegant outdoor furniture.

The earliest evidence of wickerwork can be traced to ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia between 5000 and 3000 BCE. Sumerians were among the first to weave reed, willow, and rush into baskets, sieves, and flat mats. From there, wickerwork spread throughout early river valley civilizations like ancient Egypt and China where it was commonly used to make containers, floor mats, chair seats, and even architectural features. In India and Southeast Asia, intricate rattan wickerwork developed into fine furniture and ceremonial objects.

Throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, wickerwork remained an essential craft for producing versatile baskets, sieves, hampers, and more. Specific regions developed their specialized wickerwork styles using locally abundant materials. In England, handwoven willow baskets called “seanes” became a notable tradition. Italian craftspeople fashioned lightweight “giunco” furniture from flexible cane and reed.

Ancient Wicker Techniques

Many ancient wickerwork techniques still underpin traditional handcrafting methods today. Using only plant fibers, a knife, and their hands, artisans masterfully ply, splice, and interweave materials with intricate patterns and spiral designs. The most well-known style is coiling which originated over 7,000 years ago in Africa. By coiling grasses, reeds, or vines into overlapping concentric circles, complex round baskets are formed without any knots or joints.

Basketry is also produced through twining, a simple over-two-under-two weave. More elaborate plaiting involves interlacing up to six or more flexible strips into geometric patterns. For sturdier structures and furniture, wicker is often woven into flat strips called splints then joined and shaped over molds. Willow trees, with their pliable young branches, were especially prized for producing durable yet workable splint material across Europe and Asia.

Traditional Wickerwork Today

While manufacturing techniques have modernized wickerwork, handcrafting persists as both a cultural tradition and a commercial craft. In parts of Africa, the coiling process maintains its ancient role creating vital storage, transport, and household goods. In Asia, intricate rattan wickerwork endures as an art form to construct ornate decor, furniture, coverings, and containers.

Traditional Basketry Styles

Some renowned handwoven wickerwork styles still made today include:

  • Navajo coiled baskets (North America) are known for their woven Diamond twill patterns
  • Seagrass baskets (Portugal/Mediterranean) featuring elaborate motifs and shapes
  • Bulrush baskets (Northern Europe) are defined by their intricate linearly structured designs
  • Rattan furniture, lamps, and homewares (Southeast Asia) renowned for fine craftsmanship

Traditional Wicker Structures

Other sizable structures are still crafted through traditional methods:

  • Wattle-and-daub fencing and walls (Europe/Africa/Asia) woven from branches laced with mud or clay
  • Willow tunnel structures, fences, and furniture (Europe) woven around live willow frames
  • Bamboo fencing, walls, and dwellings (Asia) tightly woven from versatile bamboo canes

Modern Wickerwork

While handcrafting maintained prominence, industrialization ushered in new materials and a wider distribution of wickerwork. Rotating rattan looms enabled mass-produced chair caning in the 1800s. The invention of plastic in the mid-1900s introduced durable, weather-resistant synthetic rattan perfect for outdoor furniture that remains dominant today.

Modern designers fuse traditional wickerwork styles with contemporary aesthetics. Furniture employs flat woven rattan fully upholstered with cushions. New high-end wicker collections feature leather detailing or precision stitching. Wicker even adapts to nontraditional uses like high-end lighting fixtures and wall art. At the same time, restored antique rattan and cane pieces from earlier eras retain their value as unique heirloom furnishings.

Advantages of Modern Wicker

While retaining antique aesthetic appeal, modern wickerwork provides:

  • Durability for withstanding weather, roughness, and long-term use
  • Convenience through factory pre-assembly of extensive pieces
  • Consistency through machine productions versus handcraft variability
  • Affordability at scales higher than handwoven production allows

So in summary, millennia-old techniques continue inspiring contemporary adaptations that make wickerwork furnishings accessible and practical for modern lifestyles as the elegant craft of wickerwork keeps evolving.

“Wickerwork demonstrates how honoring traditions need not confine an art—through respecting history, new possibilities emerge. View antique wickerwork pieces at museums to perceive the skilled hands of past artisans, or visit local craftspeople to commission heirs to these esteemed traditions, keeping age-old techniques and their community benefits alive through your support.”

In closing, the enduring art of wickerwork connects us across geography and time, a thread linking hands across thousands of years through the simple yet elegant craft of weaving plant fibers into infinitely useful and beautiful designs. Whether browsing museum collections or relaxing in modern wicker chairs, one experiences the woven legacy of this venerable craft.