Clara Haizlett Published

Chair Caning Provides Employment And Community For Folks With Visual Impairments In Wheeling, W.Va.

An older man wearing black glasses and with a trimmed white beard bends in close to the seat of a chair. It is a caned chair he's restoring.
Mike Cunningham is nearly finished hand caning a chair at the Seeing Hand workshop in Wheeling, West Virginia.
Clara Haizlett/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

This story originally aired in the March 31, 2024 episode of Inside Appalachia.

Bianca Miller is standing eye level with a wooden chair that’s been placed on top of a table. Now, usually chairs go under the table and usually chairs are for sitting. But if you sat on this chair, you’d fall right through. The seat is gone.

Miller is weaving a new seat onto the chair’s empty wooden frame. She’s using a material called rush, which looks almost like a long, thick shoe string.

“Under, over, under, over,” she says to herself, weaving along in synchrony.

Hammer in hand, Miller secures a piece of rush along the seat’s perimeter.

“Let’s say a little prayer,” she says as she swings the hammer. “I like my fingers.” 

Two women, one older and one younger, talk to each other and laugh. Around them are caned chairs waiting to be restored.
Bianca Miller (left) and Debbie Hatfield are chair caners at the Seeing Hand Association in Wheeling, West Virginia.

Photo Credit: Clara Haizlett/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

In 17th century Europe, caned chairs were all the rage. You know the kind — a wooden frame with a seat woven onto it. The trend spread to Appalachia, where chairs were often woven with strips of hickory bark. Nowadays though, you don’t see many caned chairs around, except for maybe at your grandma’s house or the occasional garage sale. That’s because cane doesn’t last forever. Eventually the material breaks down and needs to be replaced. That means a lot of caned chairs end up in the trash. But here at the Seeing Hand Association in Wheeling, West Virginia, folks are giving new life to these old chairs, and finding community along the way. 

A building is seen along a street in the fall. In the distance is a pretty tree with red leaves. On the side of the building is a sign that reads, "The Seeing Hand."
The Seeing Hand Association in Wheeling, West Virginia.

Photo Credit: Clara Haizlett/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

As Miller weaves, she pulls at the rush to tighten it. 

“Super duper tight, super duper tight. Make sure your fingers turn the darkest red they can possibly turn. And if you lose the first few layers of skin, it’s okay, because that means you’re doing the best thing you can,” Miller says. “It’s all for the chair.”

Miller canes by memory, touch and whatever level of vision she has that day.

“With my disease, I never know if I’m going to wake up with vision or not,” she says. “Today I have floaters and flashes and it’s a little bit cloudy, almost as if you’re looking through a lava lamp. You just never know what to expect.” 

In 2020, Miller was diagnosed with an inflammatory eye disease called Uveitis. In the process of getting treatment, she ended up going totally blind for 10 months. Eventually she did regain some vision, but it’s unpredictable. 

Although Miller’s sight isn’t guaranteed day to day, it’s not really necessary to do this job — and to do it well. In fact, everyone in this workshop has limited visual ability. 

Seeing Hand is a nonprofit that provides employment and specialized services for folks that are blind or visually impaired. Employees are trained in skills like refurbishing fire extinguishers, making and restoring mops, and caning chairs. 

“The fire extinguishers, the chairs, the mops, the brooms, it all makes sure we have a job,” Miller says. “It’s job security.” 

Miller came to Seeing Hand about two years ago. 

“I kind of forgot about this place until my mother had reminded me that my grandfather was here,” she says. “He had went blind all of a sudden in his early thirties, which is when I went blind.” 

It’s been years since Miller’s grandfather worked here, but Seeing Hand is still around — marking nearly a century of providing services and support in the community.

Mike Cunningham joined Seeing Hand last year. He works three days a week at the workshop. It’s the first job he’s had since 2012. 

An older man leans over a chair. He is working on restoring caned chairs. Around him are other tables with chairs on them. One person can be seen near him working on their own chair.
Employees restore caned chairs at the Seeing Hand workshop in Wheeling, West Virginia.

Photo Credit: Employees restore caned chairs at the Seeing Hand workshop in Wheeling, West Virginia.

“Before this job, my activities outside of the house were 45 minutes to the grocery store, and that was it,” Cunningham says. “Basically, I was stuck in the house for ten years.” 

Cunningham is totally blind in his left eye. The vision in his right eye is slightly better, but not great. 

“I split my eye on my bedside table in 2012. And when they sewed it up, the scar goes right down the center of my vision,” he says. “So I have zero straight lines. Every straight line is curved. So it’s more of a distortion than it is blindness. It’s a definite impairment.” 

A caned chair is seen on a table waiting to be restored.
The frame of a wooden chair that is ready to be recaned.

Photo Credit: Clara Haizlett/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Cunningham is nearly done with the chair he’s working on. He’s using cane, a material that’s thinner and more delicate than rush. Following an intricate pattern, he carefully threads a strip of cane under, over, under, over. He says this has been his hardest chair yet. 

“Sometimes you talk to the chair,” he says with a chuckle. “If it’s not going very easy, you don’t say very nice things.”

Cunningham’s work table is right across from Jeannine Schmitt. Now 82, Schmitt learned to cane chairs over 40 years ago, before experiencing vision loss. These days, she largely relies on muscle memory. 

“You almost can feel if it’s right after a while,” she says. “It’s like second nature. Your fingers are on automatic.” 

An elderly woman is leaned down close to the seat of a chair. She is weaving a new seat onto an old hand caned chair.
Jeannine Schmitt weaves a new seat onto an old hand caned chair.

Photo Credit: Clara Haizlett/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The chair she’s working on is probably 100 years old, she says. Once repaired, the chair will have a new life ahead of it. But not all caned chairs are so lucky, especially as the skills needed to repair caned chairs become less and less common. 

Miller points out a row of chairs that are patiently waiting their turn to undergo chair surgery. There’s an old rocker, covered in dust. There’s one with a fist sized hole right through the cane.

“I love the dirty and ugly… or I wouldn’t say ugly — unique,” Miller says. “It’s actually beautiful. And we get to work on these. You know how old these chairs are?” 

Most chairs here are brought in by customers from around the Ohio Valley but the chairs themselves come from all over. 

“Some of them are stamped Italy or Germany, and some of them are stamped like Indiana or New York,” Miller says. “And you wonder how did this even come about? My brain can go on forever about it and it’s just a chair, for gosh sakes!” 

When Miller started working at Seeing Hand, she was struggling to adapt to her vision impairment.  

“I was depressed. I gained a lot of weight. I was on a lot of meds,” she says. “Some days I’d come here and just cry, like I shouldn’t have even came.”

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But in time, things started to change. 

“Then you meet these people and you hear all their stories and you see what they’ve had to overcome and that they smile and they laugh every day,” she says. “It got me out of my funk. It brought my confidence back.”

Schmitt says her fellow employees are like “brothers and sisters.” 

“Most people really have no idea of what certain things can do to you when you’re vision impaired,” Schmitt says. “It’s nice to have people, that if you explain to them, they know what you mean. This is my second home, let’s put it like that.”

Schmitt and Cunningham are nearly finished with their chairs. When they’re done, the chairs will be sent downstairs, to join the ranks of the other finished chairs, all freshly stained and tightly caned. And in a few weeks, Miller’s chair will be done, too — repaired and ready for another 100 years. 


Production assistance for this story was provided by Ella Jennings.

This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.

The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.