As a woodworker, sometimes I ask too much of the wood.
Instead of just putting a cushion on a chair, I’ll do everything possible to force the wood to be as comfortable as possible. Naked. With no help from anything cloth, leather, foam, feathery or furry. So, I have spent years (almost two decades) learning to saddle seats – plus dial in the angles of the back and arms and seat deck – to increase the chair’s bare comfort.
But while looking at hundreds of historical chairs, I’ve seen hints of a reality that I should acknowledge more often. When it comes to comfort and warmth, wooden chairs are often assisted by wool, animal skins and cotton (to name a few).
For several years I’ve encouraged readers and customers to use sheepskins on their wooden chairs, which add lots of warmth and comfort (my favorite source for these is Driftless Tannery).
If sheepskins add too much bulk or warmth, try a wool blanket. While I was visiting St Fagans National Museum of History, I was struck by how much of the seating there was displayed as covered in woolen blankets or quilts.
While some might be put off by covering your work with a blanket, I think they are a nice complement to the woodwork – two colorful, renewable, durable and handmade objects working together to add ease and beauty to our lives.
This relationship between blankets and chairs is old. Recently Angela Robins, sent me a photo of a Forest Chair in Shelburne, Vermont, that had been modified to wrap the sitter in blankets and warmth. I love its almost skeletal appearance – and it looks naked without its coverings.
Sometimes the union between blankets and chairs is somewhat hidden.
Antiques dealer Tim Bowen in Wales recently pointed out some small nails on the underside of the arm of a stick chair. The nails’ heads protruded slightly, perhaps about 1/8”. And they weren’t structural or part of a repair.
Tim said he sees often finds these nails on old chairs and they are covered in strands of wool or other cloth. He suggested the nails acted as hooks to help keep blankets in place on the chair.
So during my most recent trip to Wales I brought back a lovely Welsh wool blanket. And I have a box of tiny old headed nails – more like escutcheon pins, really – with square heads. Just like the nails that Tim showed me.
It’s time to introduce my chairs to a new friend from the sheep world.
— Christopher Schwarz