Looming on the horizon

It may look like wicker, but Lloyd Loom furniture won't snag, sag or creak.

People have always known Lloyd Loom, even if they haven't known what it is," says David Breese, the managing director and founder of Lloyd Loom of Spalding. "If you say to nine of out 10 people, do you remember, in your parents' house, the gold corner linen basket in the bedroom or the bathroom, they will say 'oh yes, my mum did have one of those'." To the unobservant eye, these linen baskets may look like cane but throw your dirty clothes into such a basket, and the chances are that they will snag on the cane's edges and splits. Toss your delicate satin slip into a Lloyd Loom equivalent and it will glide gently over the smooth weave and finished edges, and on to the pile of clothes at the bottom of the basket.

Whereas cane or rattan is handwoven directly onto the frame of a piece of furniture, Lloyd Loom is a machine-woven material made from tightly twisted paper, reinforced down the middle of the weft with steel and produced on a loom in a continuous strip (like a length of tweed) that is then cut and tacked on to a bent beechwood frame, with the weft as the upright stake. Production is about 40 times faster than hand-weaving and avoids the blunt edges, creaks and sagging of short-stranded canes. However, the name is more commonly associated with the furniture constructed from this material, than its actual method of production. Some 20 million pieces were produced in America and England in the 50 years after the American Marshall Burns Lloyd patented his wicker-weaving system in 1917 and the furniture, especially the curvaceous deep-backed, high-armed chairs, is immediately evocative of the glamorous days of cruise liners and grand hotels, mint juleps on the veranda and, of course, satin slips.

By the 1960s the early makers of Lloyd Loom, in Menominee, Tennessee, and Lusty's in Bow, London, had gone out of business, their easy, natural look giving way to the modernism of plastic and metal furniture. But, in the early 1980s, David Breese, at the time an antiques dealer trading period pine furniture to the Dutch, noticed that there was an increasing demand from his customers for vintage Lloyd Loom pieces. "Before long, I was sending container-loads of old Lloyd Loom across to Holland." Breese sensed a potential market and, being a practical, inquisitive sort of chap, he took apart a chair, to see how it had been made. Ten years on, from that act of seeming destruction, he has created a company with a workforce of 95, an output of 700-800 chairs a week, and a 1995 Queen's Award for Export hanging in pride of place in the lobby.

Having decided that he wanted to make Lloyd Loom furniture himself, Breese set off on a stony path: with the factories out of production, it was impossible to find anyone who knew how the fabric was woven. The Lusty's factory in Bow had been blitzed in 1940, and the only people he could find who had worked there had been in painting and distribution, rather than on the looms themselves. However, by trial and error he slowly managed to get into production, adapting twisting machines and looms from the textile trade.

At present, 86 per cent of Breese's products are for the export market, with Germany and Holland being the main customers. "In Germany, they haven't any history of Lloyd Loom like they have in Britain, and they sell it as a design classic - this marvellous new product made from 25 per cent recycled paper. It's environmentally friendly and it is stylish." The way in which furniture is sold on the Continent, Breese believes, is more conducive to accepting modern designs. "They have furniture shops, the like of which you don't really find in the UK, with much more mixing of old with the new. Every town in Germany will have a shop like Heal's or the Conran Shop. That is our sort of customer." With the appointment of a new managing director to run the furniture manufacturing (the company sells directly from the factory), Breese hopes to concentrate on contemporary designs, working with the industrial designer Geoff Hollington to create pieces with little more than a cursory nod to the past.

The UK market, however, is a different kettle of fish. Although the British are lovers of nostalgia, with so many original Lloyd Loom pieces still around at very reasonable prices, it is difficult to convince customers to cough up pounds 200 or so for a new chair. But Breese is almost messianic in his conviction that Lloyd Loom is ready for its second coming. "I firmly believe that Lloyd Loom woven-fibre material is the material for the Nineties," he says with utter conviction. Next month, a showroom opens at the Spalding base which aims to display Lloyd Loom as an integral part of a modern house's furniture, rather than mere period pieces for the bathroom or bedroom.

Breese is trying to find other ways of moving out of the shadow of the past, while still retaining the integrity of the material. His looms are capable of producing about 1,000m more material a week than can be made into furniture, so this is being sold to companies which have jumped on the bandwagon for such an attractive product. "So many people are interested in incorporating the look of Lloyd Loom into their products that, if prospective competitors don't get the weave from us, they will get it from somewhere else," says Breese. "We might as well have a slice of the cake, though I do generally try and sell it to people who aren't going to reproduce the look of Lloyd Loom furniture. For example, we sell to companies that make nursery furniture, or just the round chair seats." There is a big market for it in that way.

Breese has no fears of his company going the way of its predecessors. "Even if the classic styles of Lloyd Loom go back out of fashion, the material will never go out of fashion. Wicker has been produced since the early 1800s and only the styles have changed. There will always be a place for woven fibre." And there will always be a place for snag-free linen baskets.

Lloyd Loom of Spalding, Wardentree Lane, Pinchbeck, Spalding, Lincs PEll 3SY.

Tel: 01775 712111.

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