A Guide to Wicker Outdoor Furniture

What's the Difference Between Wicker and All-Weather Wicker?

wicker rocking chairs
Donald Leel Pardue / Flickr / CC by 2.0 

Is there a wicker plant or tree? How does it differ from rattan? To simplify things, wicker is a weaving process. Wicker can be woven from plants like reed, rush, willow, and rattan. A rattan plant or tree is related to a palm and encompasses more than 600 species, some of which grow to about 170 feet. 

Grandma's Wicker

A front porch calls for a nice, old-fashioned wicker chair, along with a glass of lemonade and a sleeping cat.

While the cat and lemonade may be feasible, that wicker chair might be harder to come by. Over time, authentic wicker rarely holds up against extremes in temperature over time, and even on a covered porch, it can be subjected to hours of sun, wind, and rain. Then there's that matter of all those relatives who tend to sit in it over the years. As time goes by, Grandma gains some weight, and that wicker chair seat became a bit, umm, rump-sprung.

What is Real Wicker Made Of?

Wicker has become a generic term for products made of rattan, wicker, rush, and even man-made materials like resin wicker. Rattan is a tropical climbing palm with a thorn covering that needs to be removed before exposing the cane (bark), which has a naturally glossy finish. Seating made from natural rush has been documented as far back as 4000 B.C. and was made and used by the Egyptians. Cane, which is the hard outer bark of the rattan palm, was believed to have originated as a furniture and basket material in ancient China.

Rattan is imported from the Philippines, China, Southeast Asia, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Real wicker furniture is also crafted from reed, which is the inner pith (soft, spongy substance) of the rattan palm and resembles wood, with its long grain-like texture. Reed is versatile to work with and can be made in various sizes.

Vintage and Victorian Porch Furniture

Wicker furniture of the mid-to-late 1800s was made of steam-bent rattan. Furniture constructed with hardwood frames, up until the 1940s, is the most collectible antique wicker. Cyrus Wakefield opened a wicker furniture factory in Massachusetts in the 1840s. In 1897, his Wakefield Rattan Co. merged with Heywood Brothers & Co. to become the Heywood-Wakefield Company, which produced many iconic pieces of furniture throughout the 20th century. 

In the mid-to-late 1800s, wicker furniture grew in popularity. Furniture, especially rocking chairs, were designed in all sorts of shapes and with elaborate details that were popular during the Victorian period, with everything from Rococo flourishes to dramatic fanback peacock chairs that decorated parlors, porches, and verandas. During wicker's heyday, more than 70 styles of wicker rockers were featured in the Heywood-Wakefield catalog.

In 1917, furniture maker Marshall Burns Lloyd patented the Lloyd Loom process for manufacturing wicker furniture, in which cellulose strands were woven in wicker fabric as a sturdier alternative to wrapping cane around a frame. Heywood-Wakefield bought the patent a few years later.

Like the Real Thing, Only Stronger

Many decades later, casual furniture manufacturers (and brothers) Don and Dudley Flanders bought Lloyd Loom from Heywood-Wakefield in 1982 and formed Lloyd Flanders. The company began testing methods of making and later manufacturing contemporary loom furniture that could be durable and withstand outdoor temperatures for long periods of time.

To satisfy the desire for the nostalgic look and feel of wicker porch and patio furniture, casual furniture manufacturers came up with an alternative built to last: all-weather wicker, or resin wicker. Woven with polyethylene resin fibers on a sturdy frame, these chairs and tables are made to withstand the elements, time, and use. They also look very close to the real thing.

This new, all-weather wicker was woven from resin, which can be made into fine, vine-like pieces that resemble the authentic, natural materials.

The Lloyd Loom process was enhanced with advanced technologies to create continuous strands that won't crack, burr, or peel, and have a consistently smooth weave. High quality, well-made all-weather wicker is wrapped or woven on a steel or aluminum frame, which is sturdy, rust-proof (aluminum), doesn't warp, and is less likely to come unglued.

Outdoor furniture pieces are often finished with a coating or two of a polyester resin-based paint that is flexible and durable, giving a beautiful coat that is attractive while providing a finish that can withstand the elements. While many resin wicker manufacturers claim their outdoor furniture can be used outside throughout the year in any climate—it's probably not advisable. All patio furniture lasts longer if it is covered or stored away when not in use for long periods of time.