Wicker V. Rattan: What Every Professional Should Know
If there’s one thing that can instantly “out” you as outdoor furniture amateur, it’s not knowing the difference between wicker and rattan. The terms are often used interchangeably in consumer marketing, so while confusing them won’t get you tossed out of a showroom, it’s important to understand exactly what it is you’re buying. And it’s surefire way to tell how much a sales rep really knows about their product, especially if your client is interested in vintage or antiques.
Here it is:
Wicker is a technique, not a material. Think of it more as a pattern. (Like plaid!)
Rattan is a material, not a style or furniture type. Think of it like wood or wool—it can take many forms. Wicker-weave is just one of them.
Over time, the distinction between technique and material when it comes to the two terms has become blurred, but to really understand what you’re choosing for clients and to avoid misunderstandings with suppliers, it’s important to know a brief history of each.
Wicker is a technique for crafting vessels and objects that has existed since ancient times, using anything that was plentiful and bendy: reeds (like the papyrus used to make Moses’s floating bassinet), bamboo, willow, and — you guessed it—rattan. It describes the specific pattern made when semi-pliable strands of material are woven in a certain way to create a surface.
But wicker’s “threads” can be made of anything that has the right combination of strength and flexibility for the technique, the same way a plaid design can be woven from any type of contrasting thread. In that sense, there’s no such thing as “natural” vs. “synthetic” wicker any more than there’s such thing as natural plaid or synthetic polka dots.
So why do so many people (including those who should know better) assume wicker is rattan and rattan is wicker?
RATTAn’s HOT VICTORIAN MOMENT
Rattan became inextricably associated with wicker in the Victorian era when Cyrus Wakefield and the Heywood Brothers (who later merged to become a single company in 1897) popularized wicker-weave furniture as a lightweight, less expensive, and more sanitary alternative to upholstered seating. Indonesian-grown rattan was an ideal material for this new-found demand because it was flexible, durable, and relatively inexpensive to import.
Fast forward to 1921 when Heywood Wakefield acquired the Lloyd Manufacturing company, whose founder had developed and patented the “Lloyd Loom” process for manufacturing a wicker “fabric” by machine-weaving threads made of kraft paper wrapped around wire.
This new synthetic fabric was much more durable and weather-resistant than rattan wicker and is what allowed wicker-weave furniture to enjoy more extended outdoor use. Consumers who didn’t know the difference between Lloyd Loom wicker and regular rattan wicker wouldn’t have understood why their furniture cracked and rotted so quickly when their neighbors’ didn’t.
Lloyd Loom Lives On
Fast forward (again) to 1982 when Flanders Industries bought Lloyd Manufacturing from Heywood Wakefield to become Lloyd Flanders, which has continued to this day its legacy as one of the original American makers of outdoor wicker furniture.
But if most people don’t realize Lloyd Loom wicker isn’t made from rattan, maybe that’s because it’s nonetheless often referred to as a “natural” wicker due to the wood pulp content of the paper in its threads. (The Lloyd Flanders website describes it as a cellulose fiber twisted into a sturdy cord). And since most other non-rattan wicker is made from synthetics like vinyl (PVC) or polyethylene, it’s a fair distinction.
It’s also possible for a Lloyd Loom furniture frame to be made of rattan, instead of wood or metal, which might also add to the confusion in materials descriptions.
Don’t put Rattan into a Wicker Corner
Only the inner reed section of the rattan stem is soft and thin enough to be formed into wicker strands; when used whole, the sturdy vine is that bent-pole material used in a range of iconic “tropical” furniture styles that are what many of us think of when we hear the word rattan. From Paul Frankl midcentury mod to 80’s Florida Golden Girls chic, rattan furniture has enjoyed it’s own non-wicker aesthetic. (For those of you who always thouught this kind of furniture was made of bamboo, keep that to yourself; bamboo isn’t bendable once it’s dried.)
But rattan styles aren’t stuck in the 50’s or 80’s. The material continues to be used in inventive ways, whether deconstructed from formal silhouettes like GABBY’s Watson wingbacks or Kravet’s Maggie armchair, or channeling a West Indies feel like Watermark’s collections.
More nerdy facts about the rattan plant: it’s a shameless climber but that’s okay
The rattan plant is categorized as a palm but it’s actually a spiky tropical vine (think of a giant rose stem with a few wispy palm fronds sticking out on top of the thorns). As vines are hard-wired to do, rattan aggressively climbs the tropical forest plant ladder, trading up like a shameless socialite, latching ever more opportunistically until it reaches its ultimate imperative of bursting through the canopy and becoming the a jungle 1-percenter with personal access to direct sunlight. But if rattan sounds like kind of a jerk, here’s something to love: because it needs trees to get to where it wants to go, rattan’s harvesting doesn’t deforest it’s habitats and it technically isn’t a forest product, which makes an economic difference to local economies in terms of forest tariffs and other regulations that we won’t go into, but suffice to say it can be grown and harvested responsibly, which is a big plus for anyone who is sensitive to consuming products with potentially exploitive sourcing.
Rattan is Great— as long as it’s not left outdoors
Because rattan has historically been associated with Grandma’s wicker porch furniture and 80’s Florida bentwood designs, there are lingering misconceptions that it’s suitable for outdoor use. But, like wood species (with the exception of teak), exposing rattan to the elements will lead to peeling, cracking, and eventual rot, so rattan products should always be kept in covered areas and protected from extreme temperatures and moisture.
Wicker is Great for Outdoor Furniture as Long as it’s Not Rattan
Thanks to modern technology, there’s a wide range of high-tech wicker materials available at every price point that give you the look and feel of a rattan weave but can withstand the harshest of elements and neglect. A tutorial on that is coming soon, but until then, check out some of Steelyard’s favorite super-durable wicker furniture selections: