EVERY MAY when I came home from school I found grandmother sitting in her chair on the front porch -- a sure sign of summer coming. Her chair was an elaborate old wicker with a tall back and fancy scroll work on the arms. She loved that chair. Although no one else ever sat in it, over the years the wicker wrapped around the arm rests began to unravel and the carefully woven seat and started to fray.
Mom tried to have it repaired. Mr. Parkinson, the nice old retired man across the street, who refurbished the French cane work on our livingroom chairs, told her he didn't do wicker.Neither did the antique store in town. "Wicker is a lost art," the antique dealer told her. It seemed everywhere she called she got the same reply.
Mom gave up on repairing the old chair when grandmother died five years ago. The dilapidated chair still sits on our front porch. But no one dares sit in it -- the seat wouldn't hold a paper bag for more than a minute, and after all, it was grandmother's chair.
The antique dealer wasn't far from the truth when he said that wicker is a lost art. After making a survey of the Washington metropolitan area, we found only seven shops that can and will repair wicker. Most antique-furniture refurbishers said the wicker wasn't worth repairing, once it starts to go. Richard Bartley of Harry Johnson and Son in Bethesda said, "We try not to get involved with wicker. It is handsome furniture, but almost impossible to repair."
Why don't more furniture repair shops do wicker repair? Price Lenard, who with his wife collects antique wicker pieces -- and does some of his own repairs himself -- says, "It's not that repairing wicker is difficult or that wicker, which comes from the rattan vine, is hard to find. It's not. It's just very time consuming since it's all done by hand. Most shops don't want to charge for the time it takes."
Richard Bartley agrees. "To replace just one strand takes almost an hour," he says.
Wicker has been around for many years. The weaving of willow or palm reeds into baskets and furniture was practiced by the Chinese as early as 600 A.D. As for the American Indian, wicker crafts appear at least several centuries before pottery crafts did. According to Dan Wilson and Paul Stamas in a pamphlet for Olde Towne Antiques: "From 1860 to 1920 the popularity of wicker, or reed furniture, as Americans advertised it, knew no bounds. . . . Charleston and New Orleans used the furniture extensively, and it abounded in courtyards, gardens and verandas."
". . . With the onslaught of World War II," they continue, "the popularity of wicker waned. [But] in the 1950s wicker furniture came back, and was 'in' with the leading decorators. . . . By the 1970s furnishings of wicker or rattan had apparently come to stay."
Len Ferber of College Park, Md., is one of the few people in this area who knows how to repair wicker furniture -- and as a result he has a six-to-eight-month backlog of repairs to make. Ferber doesn't charge by the hour, but by the piece. If wicker is not worth repairing, as many furniture repair shops say, why is Ferber doing it? We asked him if it was for the money?
"Are you kidding?" he laughed. "There's no money in it for us. We're lucky if we make a dollar an hour repairing wicker. We do it because we enjoy it and because it fills in any slack time we have."
Ferber, who's been in the furniture repair business for 20 years, is a self taught wicker repairman turned teacher. Several of his employees are from the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind.
Ferber says that the average customer -- including many of his own -- can do his own wicker repairs. He should buy the wicker from any place that supplies it -- sometimes you have to buy the wicker reeds in bulk. If it's bought from Len's Country Barn Antiques (see address below), Ferber will advise them on how to go about fixing their particular piece. Basically, you should soak the reed in water until it's pliable and then weave it or wrap it back into the damaged piece.
When Ferber takes an order for a repair, he consults with his customer. How damaged is the wicker piece? Is a partial repair okay? A temporary repair? How much money does the customer want to spend? If customer wants to spend only $100, then Ferber puts only $100 worth of labor into it. Ferber also will tell the customer if the wicker they've recently purchased from an auction is worth the money they paid for it -- and whether the customer should invest any additional money in it for repairs. "If a piece of wicker is structurally damaged when it comes to me, it's not worth a nickel to repair it."
Another local shop that does wicker repair is Spicer's Upholstering in Alexandria. Like Ferber, Agnes Spicer says "We don't repair structural damage, but we do take care of re-webbing and cushion repair." George and Agnes Spicer are holding their seventh annual wicker sale next Saturday and Sunday at Olde Towne Antiques in Alexandria. Their yearly sale is composed entirely of antique wicker pieces ranging from baby carriages to a Victorian platform rocker, circa 1869.
"These old pieces are really hard to find, because they're so popular right now," says Mrs. Spicer. She adds that some new wicker pieces don't compare with the old wicker. "The new wicker is of a crummy quality. The quality of workmanship is bad. You can't begin to compare the two."
Some important points to note: There are two types of wicker -- reed or rolled paper. Reed wicker is easier to repair because it is larger and easier to work with. Rolled paper, on the other hand, is as delicate as a paper rope and thus tears easily. Also, if rolled paper wicker is subjected to moisture, it shreds.
Caring for wicker is easy. Simply take the wicker pieces outside on a sunny day and hose them down with good strong water pressure. Seasoned wicker won't be harmed by the water, say Wilson and Stamas. "Water may even be good for the reeds, renewing the life in them." In addition repaint when necessary -- a light spraying is all that is needed, unless you're changing the color.
The seven shops we discovered that repair wicker are: Capitol Hill Antiques, 1114 8th St., SE., 387-9786. Eammelli Furniture Service, Inc., 649 Southlawn Lane, Rockville, 762-7600. Len's Country Barn Antiques, 9929 Rhode Island Ave., College Park, 441-2545. Leon Upholsterers, 6129 Georgia Ave., NW., 882-3888. New European Woodwork Shop, 12306 Wilkins Ave., Rockville, 881-2454. Rembert & Son, 2420 18th St., NW., 462-1704. Spicer's Upholstering, 2834 Duke St., Alexandria, 751-0320.