Cane is the bark of a vine. Inside these long and slender vines is the material known as rattan. Cane comes in several sizes or thicknesses, from coarse to fine. The cane we see in cane bottom chairs is the finest of fine. To be pliant and workable, the cane needs to be soaked before it can be woven. Some manufacturers now make synthetic caning as well.
In America and Europe, craftsmen began using woven cane furniture as early as the 17th century, but it wasn't until about 1820 that cane bottom chairs became popular here. In the 1820s, America was expanding, new technologies and industrialization were advancing, and the middle class was growing. Americans needed a lot of furniture, and factories started mass-producing chairs. The frames were built in the factory and then sent out to weavers who did the caning at home. When the frames came back, the chairs were quickly assembled. Thousands of cane bottom chairs were built during the peak of their popularity in the late 1800s. Most antique hand-woven cane bottom chairs date from that period. It wasn't too long before machines were invented to weave cane in big sheets, then cut and glue it into grooves around the seat edges.
Correct care of woven cane can renew it. Turn a cane bottom chair upside down and sponge-wash the cane with hot water and gentle soap. Make sure it is completely soaked. Let the chair dry where there is a good breeze or even outside. As it dries, it will tighten up and become as firm as it was when new.
Since woven cane seats are just glued into the chair frame, they can be replaced easily. Use vinegar to loosen the adhesive, and you can remove the old caning by separating the spline from the groove in the chair. Then buy a new sheet of caning five inches bigger all around than the old one, and soak it in water. When it is soaked and pliant, you can tap it into the groove in the chair seat and add some wood glue in the channel as well as a new spline. Woven caning comes in sheets as big as 1,000 feet, so get some extra for future replacements.
Now that caning is so easy to replace, very few people try to repair it. However, it can be done. If you can use the old caning by gluing it back together, you can duplicate the weave. For small breaks in the caning, and quick fixes, you can do a passable repair.
You may think of the cane chair as a humble piece of furniture, but that is not always the case. Here is the rich relative of your farmhouse cane bottom chair. Note how tight the weave is.