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Samoan Material Culture

Sennit three-ply braid

Sennit three-ply braid

Sennit braid ('afa) is the most important single article in Samoan material culture. The quantity used is so great that even in the present period men use much of their spare waking hours in plaiting it. All the actual details of its preparation are thus readily available.

The coconut (niu) used is the special large variety known as niu 'afa (the sennit coconut). The fruit is about 13 inches long, the husk thick, and the contained nut comparatively small. (See Plate XVIII, B, 1.) The phrase applied to it, fete pulu (swollen husk), has come to be used for anything large with little in it. Other nuts used were as follows: niu ui, with a very page 236white fibre (pa'e pa'e); niu alava, with a medium colored fibre; niu malo, with a reddish fibre (mūmū). When niu 'afa can not be obtained, ordinary nuts, (niu sasa) are used. The niu 'afa is roughly triangular in cross section. The fibres within the husk run longitudinally with the long axis of the nut. The husk is, therefore, prized off in longitudinal sections. (See Plate XVIII, B, 2 and 3.) The sections corresponding with the convexities, or rounded angles of the cross section, contain longer and better fibre, and the sections are termed matai'a. The intervening sections between the three matai'a have shorter fibres and the sections are called lafalafa.

The husk of the green nut (mumu'a) or the mature nut (popo) were alike used. The outer skin of the husk is termed tua pulu, the fibres mm 'a'a, and the interfibrous material tae.

Treatment of husk. The husk is removed in even, longitudinal segments with a mele'i husking stake. The object is to separate the interfibrous material from the fibre. The husks of some kinds of nuts, such as the niu ui, may be beaten at once, but most of them, including the niu 'afa, require soaking in water to soften the interfibrous material. The green husks from mumu'a nuts require only 4 or 5 days soaking, but the mature husk of the popo requires much longer—three weeks to two or more months. Long soaking does not deteriorate the fibre but, according to the Samoans, rather improves it in strength and lasting qualities. The segments are collected in a coconut leaflet basket, submerged in a pool inside the reef, and weighted down with stones. The submerged basket of husk is termed taomanga. After the minimum time of soaking has elapsed, the number of segments required for use are extracted from the taomanga and the rest left in the water for future use.

Beating the husk (sasa pulu). The inter fibrous material is removed by beating the husk sections, also called pulu, on a wooden anvil with a wooden mallet.

The anvil is termed malaise, but in Tutuila, tu'itu'i. An ordinary log or a rock may be used as a makeshift anvil, but every family usually has a well made anvil cut out of a section of coconut wood. They are thus circular in shape with a flat upper surface and usually four but sometimes three, legs. (See Plate XVIII, B, 4.) The legs are cut out of the solid with the anvil and their outer surface is continuous with the outer surface of the anvil. The under surface is not usually horizontal, but slopes downwards and inwards from the circumference to a central point. The lower end of the legs may be square or come to a blunt point. The anvils vary in size with the taste of the maker, but the circumferential legs are a constant feature.

The mallet (sa'afa) is an ordinary straight piece of heavy wood, round in section and with one end trimmed down into a handle. No particular care page 237is devoted to their manufacture. They vary considerably, however, in length and thickness. The beating end is smooth. (See Plate XVIII, B, 5.)

The outer skin (tua pulu) is readily pealed off and the inner short part of the soaked segment torn off and discarded. Holding one end of the segment with one hand, the other part is beaten on the anvil with the beater, the left hand every now and again turning the segment. The interfibrous material flies off under the blows of the mallet whilst that which does not is loosened and flicked off after every few blows. The ends are reversed and the sasa process of beating continued until only the cleaned fibres remain. The interfibrous material has a vile odor which is painfully evident whilst husk beating is going on. Each segment is beaten separately and tied at one end with one of the fibres to keep them distinct, and is called a mato fi. (See Plate XVIII, B, 6.) If water is available, the mato fi may be washed to assist in removing the smell as well as any particles of interfibrous material. They are then thrown up on the thatch of a roof and left exposed to sun and air to dry and also to complete the removal of the odor. Immediately after beating, the fibre has a beautiful, silky, yellow color, but this changes after exposure to the usual sennit brown. As already pointed out, some fibre has a natural deeper brown or reddish color. The mato fi may be left out on the roof for some days.

Rolling the strands (fa'ata'a). The first part in the braiding process consists of rolling the prepared fibre into suitable strands (fa'ata'a). The braider sits down crosslegged in the house with a matofi bundle beside him. From it he pulls out a number of fibres sufficient for one strand. The very short fibres (fungafunga) are separated from the good fibres, which retain the name of mui'a'a, and discarded. The little bunch of mui'a'a is held by the left thumb and forefinger whilst some of the fibres are pulled out slightly at each end, not only to lengthen the strand, but to thin the ends for joining purposes. A single fibre is separated, its middle placed against the strand, and one end twisted round it by the right hand. The other end of the single fibre is then doubled back and the strand twirled between the finger and thumb to finish the rolling of the binding fibre. The strand is next rolled on the bare thigh with the right palm. The rolling of two or three strands of other material to form a twisted cord has been described as milo. The rolling of the single strands of coconut fibre is termed fa'ata'a and the resulting strand is fa'ata'a. Here we have the causative fa'a combined with ta'a (a line), meaning to make as a line. The rolled fa'ata'a is laid down beside the worker and the process goes on until a sufficient quantity has been made. When work ceases, the fa'ata'a are bundled together and tied round the middle with a single fibre. (See Plate XIX, A, 2.) As the heap of rolled strands mounts up, so do the discarded short pieces (fungafunga) collect on the mat. Hence page 238the proverb of separating worthless things from things of value: "Ia auese le fungafunga, 'ae tu'u ai le mui'a'a" (Discard the useless short fibres, but keep the good fibre).

Plaiting. A sufficient number of fa'ata'a having been rolled, plaiting (fili) commences. In plaiting 'afa braid, which is not very thick, the plies are held between the left thumb and forefinger with the thumb uppermost and plaiting is directed away from the body. The technique thus consists of pulling whatever strand is in the middle position outwards under a side ply; first on one side, and then on the other. Whilst the right hand pulls the middle ply outwards under, the left thumb rolls the side ply over into the middle position. The left thumb also, by pressure down on the left forefinger, keeps the plies in their relative positions after each twist is made. The plaited part, therefore, passes backward under the thumb towards the body. It is just the free edge of the braiding that protrudes beyond the thumb, but in this and following figures, the thumb is shown well back so as not to obscure the technique. (See figure 128.)

Figure 128.—Three-ply sennit braid, plait technique:

Figure 128.—Three-ply sennit braid, plait technique:

a, each ply is formed by a single fa'ata'a strand of which there are three; b, the middle ply (1) is pulled outwards by the right hand, under the left ply (2), which brings the ply (2) into the middle position; c, the middle ply (2) is pulled outwards under the right ply (3) which brings (3) to the middle position; d, the middle ply (3) is pulled outwards to the left under the left ply (1); e, the continuation of the above results as shown.

When the fa'ata'a rolled strand is added and becomes an actual ply of the plaited braid, it is called an anga. Hence anyone asking the number of plies in a braid, says, "Pe fia le malosi o lau 'afa?" (What is the number of the strength of your braid?). The reply comes, "E tolu anga" (Three plies) ! Another name for the ply is tafua. Some braids have more than three plies. "Ply" is therefore used here to correspond with anga, which leaves "strand" clear for material or fresh additions and corresponds to fa'ata'a. Thus, a new strand is added to a shortening ply and once incorporated with it after the join, is included in, and becomes, the ply.

The join (so'onga). A fresh fa'ata'a strand is added to a shortening ply in much the same way as in a twisted cord. The rule is to bring the short ply into the middle position and add the new strand to it with its short end projecting back on the completed work where it is held under the left thumb. figure 129 shows the process, but in actual practice the thumb keeps just behind the working edge and the completed braid works backward under it.

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As the braiding proceeds, the fingers naturally feel the thickness of the plies. If one is felt to be too thin and thus likely to spoil the evenness of the braid, it is reinforced with a fresh strand added in a manner opposite to that of the join above. (See figure 130.)

Figure 129.—Three-ply sennit braid, join of ply:

Figure 129.—Three-ply sennit braid, join of ply:

a, the short ply (1) has been worked to the middle position; b, the new strand (4) is added to the short ply (1) with its short end (4') projecting back on the completed work; c, the middle ply (1 and 4) is pulled out to the right under the side ply (2) which conies to the middle position; d, the ply (2) is pulled out to the left under the side ply (3) when (3) comes to the middle position, the short end. (4') of the new strand (4) is doubled forward on (3); e, the braiding goes on in the usual way and only the doubled over short end (5) is seen in the middle line.

The principle of reinforcing a thin ply is to add a new strand from below with its short end on a long ply in the middle position. A couple of turns are made to bring the thin ply into the middle position, when the long end of the new strand is doubled forward to join it.

Figure 130.—Three-ply sennit braid, reinforcing thin ply:

Figure 130.—Three-ply sennit braid, reinforcing thin ply:

a, the ply (3) is too thin and needs reinforcing; b, the new strand (4) is added from below to the ply (1) which is in the middle position. The short end (4') of the new strand rests on (1) while the long end (4) is directed back on the braid. c, The middle ply (1) with the short end (4') is pulled outwards to the right under the side ply (2). After (2) comes into the middle position, it is pulled outwards to the left under the side ply (3) which comes to the middle" position. d, The middle ply (3) is the one that needs reinforcing. The reinforcing element (4) is therefore doubled forward on (3) and everything is ready to continue the ordinary braiding. e, The braiding is continued, (3 and 4) being treated as one ply. The only part of the join seen is the doubled over new strand at (5) in the middle line.

The braiding goes on until the required length is reached. When the supply of rolled strands is used up, the end of the braid is stoppered by rolling the three plies together on the bare thigh with the right hand or by tying the two outer piles together in the first part of a reef knot. A fresh supply of strands is then rolled from the fibers of the mato fi hank and the braiding continued from where it ended.

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At the end of a sitting, the worker measures the braid by holding one end with the left hand and running it through the right as he stretches the arms to full length. The full arm span is called a ngafa. The right hand holds the farthest point of the first span and draws it into the left hand which seizes the point. The second span is run through and so on until the number of spans or ngafa are counted. To lay by as reserve stock, lengths of one hundred ngafa are plaited.

The ordinary three-ply braid described above is used for lashing houses, canoes, and for general purposes. The braid looks loosely made and close inspection reveals two technical details which prevent a neat appearance: 1, the transverse turns of the fibres fixing the individual strands (fa'ata'a) show up on the plies of the braid; 2, the overlap of the strand joins (so'onga) can be detected. Quickness in manufacture and efficiency in use are, however, the guiding principles in the braiding of this type. The first detail keeps the plies of the strands together and assists quick work in braiding, and the second strengthens the braid which is subjected to firm pulling as it is applied. The average three-ply braid is shown in Plate XX, B, 3; a thicker braid in Plate XX, B, 4.

A neater braid, though smaller (Pl. XX, B, 2) half the size of the average type, is made by rolling the strands on the bare thigh without the addition of a transverse binding fibre, and omitting the doubled-over join. (See fig. 131.)

Figure 131.—Three-ply sennit braid, simple join:

Figure 131.—Three-ply sennit braid, simple join:

a, the shortening ply (1) is worked to the middle position; b, the new strand (4) is added from above to the short ply (1) with its short end (4') projecting slightly backwards; c, the reinforced middle ply is pulled out to the right under the side ply (2); d, the braiding is continued in the usual way and only the tuft of the short end (4') is left projecting in the middle line from under the short ply (1) which was twisted over it in (c); e, the short end (4') is afterwards trimmed off.

The join. The simple overlap and rolling together on the bare thigh with fau songa is not suitable with sennit fibre owing to the stiffness of the material.

The method of joining in fine braids consists, therefore, of bringing the short ply to the middle position and adding the new strand from above with the slightest projection backwards of the short end. The braiding is continued and the short ends in the middle line subsequently trimmed off short. There is thus no overlap to be seen and only the closest scrutiny reveals the cut off ends of the fibres. The same applies to the ends of the short plies. If some of these fibres stick out, they are also trimmed off. It can now be understood that page 241the extra care and trimming makes the process of braiding slower and is not so suitable for preparing the hundreds of fathoms required for house building.

When the work has not proceeded far, small coils are made on the palm by winding the turns round the thumb and little finger. The coil is removed, pressed together at the middle and bound by passing the working end round it in a couple of half hitches. When the length of braid is too great for this method, it may be coiled round both thighs with the knees diverged as the man sits cross legged on the ground. A third way is to collect the braid in long loops of one span each as the plaiter measures his work. The end of the braid is tied around one part of the circumference of the coil. On recommencing plaiting, the working end is unloosed but the coil kept intact by tying some fibres around it. If a man forgets the length he simply counts the number of the complete turns in the coil which are each a fathom in length. (See Plate XIX, B, 2.)

The working material consists of the matofi hanks of fibre, a bundle of rolled strands (fa'ata'a), and the coil of sennit braid ('afa) that is being plaited. Combined, matofi, fa'ata'a, and 'afa constitute what is termed a to'oto'o ali'i (Plate XIX, A, 3) figuratively the staff (to'oto'o) of a chief (ali'i). As they are combined together for one purpose, they are used figuratively to denote unity of purpose in the saying, "E pei o le to'oto'o ali'i lou finangalo" (May your will be as the working material of sennit braid).

The rolled strands not used up at the end of the sitting, together with the matofi hanks, are tied with fibre to the coil or to the working end of the braid so that they will be together and not dropped as the chiefs pay visits and carry their sennit work with them.

Working coil. Carpenters working on a house or a canoe use small coils, (i'o fanga), as they are more convenient to work with than large coils or shorter lengths of loose sennit. The coils are made in two ways: a, by the simple method when the coil is wound on the palm round the thumb and little finger, pressed together to form an end, and, as close as possible, to the end, a few transverse turns are made with one end of the braid and finished off with one or more half hitches (Plate XIX, B, 1); b, by the crossed method when the coil is wound on the palm by diagonal turns round the thumb and little finger, carefully removed, and the first end of the braid located lest it be hidden away by subsequent lashing. The coil which forms a figure-of-eight is doubled at the crossing. The crossed end is closely bound with the outer end of the braid and finished off with a half hitch.

In using the coil, the first, or inner, end is pulled out and tied to the object with the running noose commencement or buried under overlapping turns. As the turns of the binding are made, the braid pulls out of the interior of the coil. The coil is easily handled and may be thrown over horizontals when page 242its weight brings it down to where it is required. The slack is thus kept coiled up and prevents tangling and confusion in the various turns of the lashing.

The making of these working coils is part of the duty of the house owner whilst the building is going on. I saw Misa at Ofu, sitting chatting with the old carpenters in the carpenter's shed, automatically coiling the working hanks from a large coil of a hundred fathoms or more. He went on coiling a continuous series of small hanks which were afterwards separated by cutting or snapping the braid between.

The crossed method gives a shorter more compact hank. It is used nowadays with the very long imported lines used in deep sea fishing. In forming the coil, the line is wound diagonally over the two knees for its full length. The inner end is pulled out and the hooks and sinker attached to it. The line is then payed out until it touches bottom and the extra line remains coiled. The coil is called i'o fanga (from i'o, coil, and fanga, to pull out).

Permanent coils are those made to be stored away for future use. Each householder plaits continually in his spare time to lay up a reserve stock. The coils are then wrapped up in mats or baskets as a ta'ui bundle and stored on the fata shelves of the house. No one would think of plaiting sennit only when immediately needed. The permanent coils form part of the household property and wealth. The different forms of coils are as follows:

Loose coils (fanganga). The ordinary coil in fathom loops is used for shorter lengths in small tasks. (See Plate XIX, B, 2.) They save the necessity of breaking into the longer coils and thus spoiling them. They are also useful for satisfying people who come to borrow, and thus saving the larger coils which are kept concealed in their wrapping.

Ball ('afa tangai). The sennit is wound around a stick or some folded lengths of bark cloth into a round ball. Synonymous with tangai is ta'ai, to wind round.

Ornamented ball ('afa fa'aulu po'o, or afa manu lapotopoto). A ball is coiled to form a regular geometrical design on its surface. Some longitudinal lengths are first folded and the braid wound round the middle part to commence the ball. In the second name, manu means the sennit design and lapotopoto, globular. One of the longitudinal turns is usually prolonged to form a loop by which the ball may be hung up.

Cylindrical coil ('afa mamanu, or 'afa manu fa'aso'a). The cylindrical coil is the best and commonest form for a large quantity of sennit. (See figure 132.) In the name 'afa mamanu, we again have the geometrical design (manu), whilst in manu fa'aso'a, besides the manu design, attention is drawn to the cylindrical shape which resembles the collar beams (so'a) of a house.

The coil figured in Plate XIX, B, 3, shows the appearance, but some coils are much larger than this. It can thus be readily realized why the house-page 243holder had a shorter looser coil of the 'afa tanganga type to give away to borrowers to save his more elaborate 'afa many fa'aso'a.

The method of coiling (fig. 132) has been adopted by higher cultures for commercial purposes in coiling string. A piece of cardboard curved into a cylinder or truncated cone, takes the place of the longitudinal folds of sennit and in the example examined the ascending spiral turns were laid along the upper side of the preceding turns and the descending turns followed on the lower side of the preceding turns.

Figure 132.—Sennit coil technique ('afa mamanu):

Figure 132.—Sennit coil technique ('afa mamanu):

a, a coil is made which when flattened out will be the desired length of the cylindrical coil; b, the end of the braid (1) from the coil (a) is wound transversely around the coil to form the basis of the cylinder with the free end (1) ending at the bottom; c, from the mid-front (2) at the lower end of the surface facing the coiler, the braid is turned up at an angle of about 45° and wound spirally around the cylinder until it reaches the top edge at (3); d, the braid is turned down at right angles to its previous course and wound spirally around the cylinder in the opposite direction as shown by the arrows. On arriving at the lower end, it crosses over the commencement of the ascending spiral at (2) to reach the edge. It is then turned upwards to follow the ascending spiral on its lower side. e, The second ascending spiral turn reaches the upper edge at (4) where it crosses the commencement of the descending spiral from the turn (3). The braid is turned down from the edge at (4) and follows the descending spiral on its upper side until it reaches the lower edge at (5) when it is turned upwards to follow on the lower side of the previous ascending spiral turn. f, The technique is now established. The ascending turns follow on the lower side of the previous ascending turns, are turned at the upper edge to descend on the upper side of the previous descending turn, and at the lower edge change direction to ascend again on the under side of the previous ascending turn. The technique is continued until the whole surface is covered. Care must be taken to bring each turn to the edge so that an even upper and lower edge is maintained. Each subsequent turn fixes the preceding one. As one complete layer of spiral turns is formed, the winding simply continues. The geometrical pattern develops itself and the triangular figures show up in the actual coil better than in the figure, owing to the standing out of the overlapping last layer.

In addition to the types of coils, sennit braid may be simply wrapped up in a mat without elaborate coiling. Old sennit removed from dismantled houses was so treated and stored on the fata shelves. It was then called a ta'ui 'afa from being bundled in a mat to form a ta'ui. If merely put in a basket, it is termed 'ato 'afa (basket of sennit braid).