Several types of cane from rattan plants that grow in South East Asia were commonly used for basketmaking in Britain. Two of these Palembang (named after a port in Java, Indonesia) and Kooboo (the Malay word for a trap usually made of cane)(1). Kooboo was used by Alisdair Davidson on the Isle of Arran when making landing baskets for Grimsby docks in Yorkshire (see Alisdair Davidson Story). He explained
‘Kooboo is more yellowy and thicker and Palumbang is smaller, browner, and finer usually used it for filling in.'(2)
Cane imports from South East Asia started in colonial times and as Alisdair explained it is not a nice history.
‘Yeah…Its not a nice history. We found a book, the old fella, when he was closing up the firm down in Rochdale, found a book about Kooboo and the, what do you call it?…. the British Empire basically, that was running the trade at the time. And the advice from the governer general to the District Officers out in the sticks was to burn the rice paddies down, burn their rice storage places down and then they will go out and harvest the stuff for you.'(2)
Whether it was originally imported on ships as dunnage or specifically for basketry and furniture making is unclear (see The Use of Rattan in Scottish Baskets) but it certainly became a common material to be used in many baskets in Britain.
Alisdair described how rough on the hands the cane he used was compared to using willow.
‘Its incredibly spikey…its like a razor. It also had like a silica casing. When you bent it round a stake it was like having a handful of sand. You could strike a match in the palm of my hands. Willow…even straight off the tree willow is much nicer……..its also like bamboo, rings every so many feet. and some of them can have tiny wee bits that stick out. You can run your hand along it and slice the palm of your hand.'(2)
During the 1980’s the export of rattan was banned from some South East Asian countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philipines except as a finished product (3). The price increases caused by this together with metal and wire alternatives probably contributed to the decline of cane basketmaking in the 1980’s. Around this time Alisdair began using willow more instead of cane for his basketmaking. (2)
Although cheaper supplies were available again in the 1990’s due to deregulation of the market (3), the price now seems to be shooting up again. Susie Bishop recently told me how the cost of the chair seating cane she imports to Scotland has gone up so much that it is almost making it not worthwhile to continue with chair seating. Rattan is a climbing plant that grows in tropical forests. Most rattan used for crafts is harvested from this native habitat and Susie thinks that it is the destruction of this habitat due to logging that has caused the price increases (4)
by Julie Gurr
1. Canework by Charles Crampton
2. Transcript of interiew with Alisdair Davidson
3. Species Profiles Rattans by Terry C.H. Sunderland and John Dransfield in Rattan- Current research issues and prospects for conservation and sustainable development, Eds John Dransfield, Florentino O. Tesoro and N. Manokaran, Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations 2002
4. Conversation with Susie Bishop