The Orkney chair has developed through local tradition, perhaps originating from a simple piece of furniture that the islanders could make for themselves with what materials were readily available.
In its very early stages it was nothing more than a low round stool covered
with straw. It was then developed into a low chair by the addition of
a straw back some two feet in height. There followed the addition of
a hood, possibly to give the occupant shelter from draughts.
To this point in the chair's development the seat remained round and the covering of straw went down to the floor. Then a native of one of our more northerly islands made the first chair with a wooden seat, differing in two respects in that it was square and that there was no straw covering on the chair base.
By now, some new timber (a locally scarce resource) would have reached these shores, although this does not mean new timber was used in the chairs. Around this period the drawer would also have been added. This is more or less the style of what we know today as the Orkney Chair. In very old chairs it will be found that no two are exactly the same in size or shape, this shape and size being governed by the skills and materials that the maker had available.
By 1890 chair sizes and shapes had been standardised by some who were trying to produce them on a commercial basis ( just making the chair frame), but only as a very small part of a business along with joinery or undertaking or other woodworking business. However, many chairs were still just 'one offs', and varied in both size and shape.
Between 1910-1915 the first inset or cord type seats replaced the previously solid wooden seat. In many of the older chairs the back rose out and upwards in a steady slope from the seat, possibly a sign that it was made by someone who had only made one or two for his own family. A back that has a proper shape should rise up straight for some fourteen rows, depending on arm height, then start to slope outwards.
Another historical difference was that some backs were more rounded (i.e. less sharp on the corners) - notably those made on one of the outer isles. Many backs were made on a cottage industry basis for others who made the frames. In these cases they were mostly made on a frame, then cut off and fixed to the actual chair at a later date. This is not now considered a good practice as it is impossible to make the back a tight fit on to the chair frame.
As in many other crafts time is a great teacher and Bob Towers has incorporated these traditions and lessons into his approach to the Orkney Chair and now produces arguably the finest examples of this traditional piece of furniture available.