- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Willie Conley, 48, of Alexandria knows a thing or two about the origins, care and repair of traditional wickerwork — what he calls the “authentic” kind. He has a wicker repair service in the back of his home where clients bring favorite pieces for him to restore, some of which are more than 100 years old.

“There are pieces handed down for generations,” he says. “People get misty sometimes. Just today, an older woman brought in a rocking chair that she said she used as a child. What is really rewarding is working on a bassinet that in some cases goes back to when a granddaddy was born….”

Old-fashioned white wicker is surprisingly durable but also quite vulnerable, he notes.

“I joke that children and pets keep me in business, because a child or even a pet can snap off one of the reeds that are one-quarter-inch in diameter. The thing is to get the pieces fixed. When woven correctly, each piece relies on the other and makes the whole strong.”

Mr. Conley has handled a synthetic piece damaged on delivery but prefers to work with the old-fashioned antique variety that he says often was made of fiber cord or fiber rush woven around the arms and legs of a rattan frame.

“Fiber rush is made of tightly wound paper that is a wood byproduct and just as strong as cane but more versatile because it stains really well,” he explains.

Cane and rattan are the same thing, he says: “Natural cane comes from the rattan palm plant that grows straight up several hundred feet and is never more than four inches in diameter. The bark is used for weaving, the inner part for the construction of frames.”

He charges $20 to $300 for repairs, depending on the complexity of the job. Repairing the decorative scrollwork found on many old pieces is like reweaving old Oriental rugs.

He says maintenance is mostly common sense and suggests most of the work is getting dirt out of the weave. For that he advises using a 4-inch paint brush to brush out the dirt or using the brush attachment on a vacuum.

“Mild soap and water can be used on wicker. Getting wicker wet is no problem; moisture is good for it,” he notes. “Just be careful not to use the full force of a garden hose. High pressure can break the reeds.”

Pollen can be a nuisance because, if left to accumulate on the furniture, it will get thick and stick and be harder to remove.

The sun is a danger because it can cause fading and dry out the wood, which then may crack and be exposed to rot. For this reason, it’s important to dry a washed chair thoroughly before bringing it back onto the porch.

Mr. Conley recommends using custom-made covers for the furniture in the off-season.

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