Stray wolf led to woman’s new career as chair caner and weaver

Circa-1870 Victorian lacquer and mother-of-pearl chair with cane seat. From the Estate of Walter and Bluma Muller of Birmingham, Michigan. To be offered with a $300-$500 estimate in DuMouchelles' Aug. 15 auction, with Internet live bidding through Image courtesy DuMouchelles and

Circa-1870 Victorian lacquer and mother-of-pearl chair with cane seat. From the Estate of Walter and Bluma Muller of Birmingham, Michigan. To be offered with a $300-$500 estimate in DuMouchelles’ Aug. 15 auction, with Internet live bidding through Image courtesy DuMouchelles and

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) – The reason Dale Carleo is a chair caner and weaver is because of a wolf.

Thirteen years ago, the animal followed a neighbor home. Then the stray lay down in Carleo’s yard and would not leave.

“That whole day he spent trying to win us over,” she said. The wolf sat in front of the lawn mower, stole her daughter’s sunglasses and stared through the backyard fence at the family that evening. “He was magnificent and skinny.”

Carleo had two dogs already – a golden retriever and a sheltie – but decided that the wolf was not going to the pound.

Later that night, she left the garage door open and set out food and water. In the morning, all her neighbors’ newspapers were in her yard. So was the wolf.

After researching online, she suspected he was a hybrid, a runaway from a rural breeder. His feet were blistered.

She named him Fletcher and forgave him when he chewed through two couches.
Carleo, formerly an X-ray technologist who had thought about resuming work, realized that she had to reinvent herself. Her three children were older, her mother had recently died and she wanted a job.

But Fletcher, it was obvious, didn’t like being alone.

After she wrote about her mother to a childhood friend she had not seen in 30 years, the woman wrote back and said, “I’m a chair caner in Annapolis.” Instantly, Carleo knew this was the work she was looking for.

Carleo went for a visit and, after a weekend of caning, came home and launched her business with a book, her father’s tools and chairs from garage sales. Caning and weaving could be done anywhere. She liked the natural materials. She liked rescuing old furniture. She liked working with old tools.

“She had a basket of these,” Carleo said, holding up a splint basket of wooden pegs used in caning. As she picked up and tossed the pegs into the basket, they rattled back in with soft clacking sounds.

“I just loved working with pegs,” she said, laughing. “I guess I didn’t get enough peg time as a child.”

Today, her business, Wolf Chair Caning & Weaving, draws from local furniture refinishers and restorers such as Craftsmanship by Weathersby in Virginia Beach and Smith Furniture Service and The Strip Joint in Norfolk, as well as clients who seek her out.

The chairs that arrive at Carleo’s often have been refinished, but she prefers the wear and patina on old caning.

“I get some 70-year-old seats in here, and the colors are extraordinary,” she said, calling herself a purist. “It’s a sin to take them out.”

But she does – although she can’t bring herself to throw away someone else’s handiwork. To honor the years of service that old rush or cane has given, she saves and then burns it in her patio chimenea or, in winter, in her fireplace.

“I give it a Viking funeral,” she said, laughing.

She cleans the chairs and rubs in beeswax, especially into places exposed to the light for the first time in years.

“I usually oil the old guys,” she said, patting an oak chair from a barn sale in Rhode Island. “The wood is so dry, and the channel and holes weakened the wood over time. This one hadn’t been fed in years and years.”

She tries to duplicate the material that was originally on the chair, matching the width of the cane or adjusting it to improve a seat’s strength and durability.

While weaving with damp cane, she often thinks of the craftsman who originally worked on a chair.

“You can tell if the person who drilled the holes was a caner,” she said, “if they line up.”
When the geometry is off, the seat was probably a homemade project. Years ago, a lot of caning was done by the blind, a feat Carleo admires.

It is a peaceful task.

As she works, she sometimes listens to a book on tape, sometimes to the ticking of her clock, the soft clunk of wood on wood, the whisk of cane being pulled through holes. Pegs or wedges drop from her hands back into her work basket; a rawhide hammer covered with bite marks thumps in stubborn pieces.

Fletcher, she recalled, loved to chew on the hammer and stole it whenever he could.

“We had him 10 and a half years,” she said. “He was known all over the state in all the soccer clubs where my son played.”

Most people, she said as she worked on a chair with a style of woven seat called “German caning,” want their new cane stained. But here again, she likes to leave the natural color, knowing that over years of use it will pick up a patina unique to the home it’s in.

It takes about four or five hours to do a caned seat. Rush is a little faster. For cane, she charges $2.25 per hole. An average chair seat has 72 to 82.

To extend the life of a caned chair, Carleo advises her customers not to sit on their knees or feet, to keep chair seats out of bright light and, when the seats sag, to wet them with a mixture of glycerin and water, put them in the sun and see if they’ll tighten as they dry.

Over the years, she’s learned a variety of caning and weaving patterns and styles: Danish is a lot of fun, she said, calling the twisted rope seats and nailing technique a whole different ball game.

She keeps a small photo album of chairs she’s caned, patterns she’s woven and materials she’s used in the craft: pegged German cane, flat reed herringbone, popcorn weave, Mexican cattail, twisted cattail, sea grass.

She works in her living room beside a tapestry of a wolf, a reminder of the one who started it all.

More than a dozen chairs of different sizes and vintages wait in the room over her garage. Some are caned, some are woven, all are well worn.

“Every chair is like a person,” she said. “It’s like an entity. Some of them give me a very powerful feeling. There’s such character in them sometimes that they almost make me cry. Some of them must have such good stories. If only they could talk.”

Information from: The Virginian-Pilot,

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