Germantown’s wicker whisperer heals, and restores memory to, chairs

    Nicholas Thaete, owner of Cane and Rush in Maplewood Mall, has a cure for memory loss — if you happen to be a wicker chair.

    It turns out that wicker, the generic term for plant material woven together to make baskets or furniture, loses its memory just like the rest of us. It totally forgets what it’s like to be a young, tightly woven chair seat and gets all saggy and brittle.

    “The material dries out and it needs to be re-soaked, re-dampened,” says Thaete, who recommends you turn over wicker furniture, “put a damp cloth on the underside and that will re-tighten it. [Sometimes a chair] loses its memory, so putting a damp cloth on it restores it.”

    If only that worked for people, he’d really be on to something.

    “That’s what I wish somebody would do to me,” said Thaete, who opened Cane and Rush three years ago. “Put a damp cloth on my head and I’d remember everything.”

    A walking wicker-wiki

    Thaete’s in no danger of forgetting his craft, though. A walking wicker-wiki full of technique and lore, Thaete has been weaving chair seats, backs, headboards and decorative screens out of cane and rush for 32 years. He first picked up the technique when his sister bought a book on the subject and embarked on a chair caning project of her own.

    “She never finished the chair,” Thaete says, but some good did come of the project. He made off with the book and developed a passion for wickerwork that saw him transition from his career as a surgical tech to restoring designer cane and rush furniture fulltime.

    There is a certain surgical precision to the weaving process, but Thaete finds it nowhere near as stressful as his former job.

    “It’s not a hard thing to learn, it’s just tedious,” he says of the basic seven steps required to produce the complex weaves used for chairs and other decorative objects. He estimates that it takes 4 or 5 chairs to really learn the fundamentals. After that, it’s simply a matter of gaining experience one chair at a time. “Figuring out the weave is the hardest part.”

    Learning the patterns

    There are a number of well-known weave patterns used in designer wicker furniture, each distinguished by the number and size of the holes in the pattern and the space between them, similar to the gauge in woven fabrics.

    “It’s easy to miss a stitch,” Thaete says, reinforcing the similarities between weaving fabric and chair caning. While some terminology may overlap, materials like rush are distinctly different from those used in fabric weaving.

    For starters, natural rush is produced from the outer bark of plants like the cattail. Harvesting rush and twining it into the sturdy cord used for weaving is a labor-intensive process.

    “I have gone, cut my own cattail leaves, got stuck in the mud, because it’s always in the marsh, the cattail leaves,” Thaete explains. Once leaves are collected they have to be dried, soaked and then eventually twined into stands, a process that can take up to a week. “You have to roll it really tight. I never got the true knack of it.”

    Today, Thaete uses rush that comes pre-twined in large spools. The spools sit stacked on top of one another in his workshop, which is full of chairs, some lined in tidy rows across the floor, others hanging from the wall.

    Most of the wall mounted chairs are newly restored. Their seats are firm, and there’s a starched crispness to the stitching of the weave that’s just begging for someone to sit on it. Clearly they remember what it means to be chairs, and they have Nicholas Thaete to thank for it.

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