By Jennifer Paire – Contributing Writer
A Jasper chair weaver known for reviving dusty, discarded furniture claims he can weave with his eyes closed.
“From the moment I start weaving I don’t stop until I have to,” said Terry Warden of TDW Chair Weaving. “I forget about everything else in my life. It can be a bit addicting.”
Warden has honed his craft for 40 years, working primarily as a hobbyist in the so-called “dying art” of chair weaving – a labor-intensive and tedious craft. He said he has forgotten how many patterns he uses to fix the blown-out backs and bottoms of chairs.
“This has been a side business you can do anywhere, in the kitchen, out of your trunk; with the man hours of what it takes to produce these by hand, this is not a big profession,” said Warden, a retired commercial driver who first learned seat weaving around the age of 12. “I do it because I love bringing back old furniture.”
Warden’s training started with his family in Kentucky – his parents knew the basics, but he spent summers in Mississippi with his uncle Joe Warden watching, counting, learning to feel tension in the warp and weft of a woven seat. A Jasper resident for 30 years, he teaches his own children and grandchildren to weave. His wife, Joy, knows the 7 step method – also known as French lace – the pattern used by many beginners for its simplicity.
“In my 20s and 30s I would go once a summer to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian (in Cherokee, North Carolina) and watch and learn,” Warden remembered. “I learned how to cut a tree and make my own splits, how to hunt down the roots or berries I’d need if I wanted to dye it. If I’m on vacation and I see a weave that’s interesting, I will take a picture.”
Even if Warden doesn’t recognize a weave, he will use his pattern-detecting superpowers to sort it out.
“If you can bring me enough of an old seat I can count and I can figure out the pattern,” said Warden, who creates custom weaves as well. “We mainly use traditional cane which is bamboo, rush which is recycled cardboard twisted into cord, and three-ply Danish cord but I’ve seen seagrass, cat’s tail, corn husk, wheat grass. I’ve seen neck ties, pieces of rubber, plastic strips. In the past, people used whatever they had.”
Warden considers himself lucky to be in close proximity to The Brumby Chair Company in Marietta, The Oak Store in Gainesville and Rex Furniture Company in Rex. All make rocking chairs with webbing that needs repair if it breaks.
“It’s not easy to find someone who knows one weaving style, and I know all the techniques,” he says.
Warden offers a “class in a bag” for beginning weavers. Each bag is $200 and those interested can contact him through his web site: tdwchairweaving.com
“I give them what they need with instructions, including a chair frame, and they can be weaving the 7 step at home that night.”
While some may associate seat weaving with the older set, Brandy Clements, of Silver River Center for Chair Caning in Asheville, North Carolina, challenged that notion. Silver River’s operation includes a museum and a school.
“I struggle with the ‘dying art’ label because it’s romantic and it’s not necessarily representative of the actual state of chairs,” said Clements AKA Shameless Chair Nerd. “This younger generation is all into the handmade objects and experience and our students are getting younger. We started in the 50- to 60-year-old range with our students and now we are seeing trendy architects in their 30s.”
Clements said chair caning’s classic style has “never gone away” and is trending in a big way on the pages of Architectural Digest, at Ikea, in grocery stores, on handbags and shoes.
“If you watch ‘This is Us’, every single episode has a woven chair,” she added. “I think another myth is that young people today don’t care about antiques. Those broad generalizations do a disservice to what we are seeing.”
These days, Warden has a waiting list for his work and quite a few happy customers. Real estate agent Jennifer Mansfield of Jasper asked him to recane the chairs that go with her mother’s kitchen table, which now resides in her home.
“We tried to do it ourselves but I tell you what, it’s hard,” said Mansfield. “I grew up with this kitchen table and chairs and over time the chairs just blew out. I just wanted to preserve them because they’re beautiful. They’ve held up nicely and we use them all the time.”
Mansfield’s example is one of many times Warden’s hands have touched chairs with important history. Warden is also a woodworker, and he repaired the broken front crossbar on a chair without damaging the original cane weave for Dan Westbrook, a retired businessman in Jasper. The chair belonged to Rosa Chambers, wife of the Rev. Robin Chambers, and the Chambers for which the street in Jasper is named.
“That was my grandmother’s chair; I have about three of her little porch chairs that were caned seats – they used to adjust the chair for the person who sits in them and ladies were probably five feet tall,” said Westbrook.“I could never replace those chairs, not in a million years and I remember those chairs growing up, she had those on the front porch. Grandpa had his rocking chair. They’d sit out and snap string beans and okra.”