What Is Rattan

Rattan is a lightweight and durable natural material used in making furniture. It is the long stem of a very spiny South-East Asian palm which, instead of growing upright, rambles across and through neighboring plants like a vine, sometimes reaching well over 100m in length. Rattan grows fast among the other plants and trees of tropical rainforest and is simple (if labor-intensive and a little dangerous) to harvest. Therefore it is a crop which can contribute to good forest maintenance and developing-world income. Most of the world’s supply comes from Indonesia, but it is grown in other parts of South-East Asia too.

Although the rattan stem is very light, it grows solid, like timber, which makes it both stronger and also easier to shape than bamboo and other hollow canes. The stem can grow about as thick as a broom-handle, which gives enough strength to make frames for sofas which will safely support two or three people. For the furniture industry, rattan stems are cut into long poles, stripped of their leaves and then steamed and shaped while hot to form the frames for chairs, tables etc. When cooled, the rattan pole retains its new shape. Rattan stems can also be split or separated into strips and then woven into panels and sections of furniture such as chair backs and seats or armchair bodies. This woven rattan is called ‘wicker’.

It’s worth knowing that rattan does not mean the same thing as wicker, and not all wicker is made of rattan. ‘Rattan’ refers to the South-East Asian palm-stem as described above. ‘Wicker’ describes a method or process of weaving strips of a stiff, flexible material. So a chair might be composed of a rattan pole frame with a wicker back which could be made of rattan but could equally well be made of split bamboo, reed, banana-leaf or any other kind of weavable material – even plastic. It would still be wicker! Often, though, furniture is made with both rattan frames and rattan wicker which of course coordinate well. Note that because wicker rattan furniture uses more material and it takes time to weave and attach the wicker sections to the frame, it is usually a little more expensive than plain pole-frame furniture – whether or not rattan is used for either the frame or the wicker.

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