Fake wicker looms large

``What on earth do you want that for?'' asked a friend incredulously as I admired a tired-looking Lloyd Loom armchair. Her reaction was typical of a generation, brought up between the wars, that now regards the products of that highly successful company as more than a little pass'e. Until the Lloyd Loom Company ceased production in 1962, its armchairs, tables, and linen baskets could be found in homes across Britain, and even on ocean liners. For years these items have been slipping downmarket, relegated to the guest bedroom, the junk shop, or the bonfire. But a new generation has discovered Lloyd Loom furniture and a second wave of popularity is under way.

Lloyd Loom furniture is often classed as ``wicker'' or ``cane.'' But although it looks like wicker, it is, in fact, made of paper. Its invention grew out of the popularity of wicker furniture in the 19th century. Many furniture makers tried to find a way to weave wicker on a machine. None were successful. But in 1917 an American pram maker, Marshall B. Lloyd of Michigan, invented a wicker look-alike of twisted paper that could be woven rapidly on a special loom. To strengthen the ``fabric,'' the warp was reinforced with steel wire. It could then be cut and applied to bent beech-wood frames.

After War War I, William Lusty of Bromley-By-Bow in London, bought the copyright and patterns and became the exclusive producer in Britain. His business, Lloyd Loom, was a great success. The company made many types of armchair, some with upholstered seats, which, together with bedside cabinets, tables, and linen baskets, made up the bulk of production. Smaller quantities of more adventurous items were also made, including settees, writing tables, and hat stands. These are the aristocrats of the company's production and are now hard to find and expensive.

A distinctive feature of the Lusty products was the plaited ``wicker'' braid that was stapled over the edges of the fabric where it was fixed to the beech frame. All items were marked with an applied paper or metal label, and the date was stamped on the underside of the frame. Labels are now often missing but the small nail holes remain to prove authenticity. The date stamp has also often been obliterated by paint. But early examples can be dated by measuring the space between the warp strands: Extra strength was given by narrowing the space to one inch, until 1927 when it was narrowed again to 3/4 inch. This remained the standard width until the company ceased production.

All Lloyd Loom pieces were painted.

For about 20 years after the company closed, Lloyd Loom furniture was in the doldrums. But prices have now begun to rise rapidly. Large quantities of the British-made pieces are being exported, especially to the United States. Many pieces can be found in Britain's former dominions, exported there before World War II.

One fashionable furniture store in London's Sloane Street has a selection of Lloyd Loom armchairs priced around 140 each. A settee, when available, costs the better part of 1,000. As usual, shopping around will save substantial sums. Typical armchairs can still be found in second-hand furniture shops and auctions for about 30-40. As these items are not considered to be collectors' pieces, repair work is not considered damaging. The original colors may now be drab and can be updated without affecting the value of the piece. Lloyd Loom furniture is remarkably hard wearing, and I can say from personal experience, comfortable.

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