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Samoan Material Culture

Fine Mats — Materials and Implements

Fine Mats

Materials and Implements

The term "fine mats" ('ie tonga) applied to articles plaited with thin narrow wefts in check and usually ornamented with fringes and red feathers; has been in use so long that it cannot be abandoned. The mats, however, are worn as skirts and thus come under the category of clothing.

The fine mats are made of lau'ie, the leaves of the cultivated 'ie, a pandanus distinct from fala and paongo. In Savaii, the lau'ie is said to have been first brought to Falealupo by Nafanua, who subsequently became an important war goddess.

The serrated edges of the leaves are removed and the spines on the back of the midrib trimmed off. The upper shiny surface of the leaf is the alo and the duller under surface the tua. Each leaf is cut transversely across on the under surface about two inches from the butt end. The cut passes through the under layer of the leaf and this tua, under layer, is peeled off between the cut and the butt end, leaving the thin upper, alo, surface intact. After a short exposure to the sun the leaf is folded in two-foot lengths and a convenient bundle made by folding other leaves longitudinally around it. The bundle is tied around the middle with a strip of fau bast.

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The bundles, protected by a layer of green leaves from direct contact with the hot stones, are cooked in an oven for about half an hour, The leaves from the cooked bundles are folded around the hand, reverse to the previous folding, to straighten them out. The thin, shiny alo layer is peeled off (fofo'e) by grasping with one hand the butt part, already peeled (Pl. XXX, A, 2), and separating it sufficiently to allow the other hand to grasp the lower layer. Owing to the cooking, the two layers readily separate by pulling, but care must be exercised as the upper layer is liable to tear at parts along the midrib that form the sites of spines. The parts that stick are separated now with a metal knife, but formerly with the edge of a bamboo strip. The coarser under layers are discarded while the thinner alo layers, which form the plaiting material, are strung together on a three-ply braid. (See fig. 160.)

Figure 160.—Braiding lau'ie leaves (filinga lau'ie).

Figure 160.—Braiding lau'ie leaves (filinga lau'ie).

Three strips of the discarded tua are knotted together. The knot is held between the toes and a three-ply braid plaited (1). The alo strips (2) are added to the braid by placing a pair of butt ends against two plies and bringing the third around them to continue the plait. So with spaced turns of the plaiting on one side, a pair of alo strips are added and when a convenient length is reached, the braid is knotted.

The braid with the leaves is termed filinga lau'ie from fili (to braid) and lau'ie (the 'ie leaves). During the plaiting, it was interesting to observe how the foot with its grasp of the braid end between the first and second toes stretched the braid taut to facilitate the plaiting. When the braid became long, the foot was shifted up on the braid to get a shorter grip. Civilized man deprived himself of extra hands when he confined his toes in boots, whereas the barefooted Samoan uses his toes to assist his fingers in many of his crafts.

Soaking in sea water. The braid is tied to a stake in the sea or weighted down at the ends with rocks. After soaking for a fortnight to bleach them to a lighter color (pa'epa'e), the leaves are cut off near the braid and dried in the sun. The braid with the butt ends is discarded. (See Pl. XXX, A, 1.)

Rolls. The leaves are split longitudinally down the midrib and the halves wound around the fingers with the inner split surface outwards. Conveniently sized rolls, much smaller than fala, are compressed to an ellipse and tied with strips of the same material. In this form, they are stored for use. (See Pl. XXX, A, 3.)

Preparing the wefts. The implements required are a scraping board and a shell scraper.

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The ordinary scraping board (papa valu lau'ie) is a slab of wood about 2 feet long, 0.5 inches thick, 4 inches wide at one end and 3 inches at the other. The working side is worn down perfectly smooth.

The shells used are 'u'u (Mytilus sp.). The unsplit leaf is scraped with large shells, whole, or broken to provide an edge, while individual wefts are scraped with very small shells.

The half leaves are unwound from the roll and straightened out by reverse rolling around the fingers. They are laid on the board with the shiny outer surface downwards while the other surface is scraped to remove extra material. Any creases in the leaf are also removed by the scraping. The leaves are split into weft widths with a sharp point, such as the outer spines of the porcupine fish. The splitting always commences a short distance from the butt end and is run out to the tip. The unsplit butt end thus keeps a number of wefts together as in splitting fala leaf. The width of the wefts varies with the skill or desire of the plaiter. In a number of fine mats examined the wefts ranged from 12 to 14 to the inch, but some are finer. The pick of the material is used for the best mats while that not quite good enough (auaunga) is used for second-class mats.

Plaiting. The wefts are always double. The true outer surface of the material is smooth and shiny but the other scraped surface is duller and shows the longitudinal striations of the fibres. The double wefts are placed with the dull surfaces together so that the bright even surfaces will be exposed on both sides of the completed mat. Some individual wefts are formed by folding longitudinally instead of splitting. When plaiting is established, the long narrow wefts are folded into fausa groups as in shaggy mats. The small 'u'u shell scrapers are used to straighten out the working wefts and a porcupine fish spine for picking up the raised sets at the working edge.

The left commencing corner (Pl. XXX, B) is usually formed by the same technique as in shaggy garments but an alternate method of turning the corner with one weft is also used. The side edges are turned without providing fringes and no ornamental tags are used on the body. Both the lower and upper edges have two sets of crossing fringes but, besides defining the edges by the half-turns of appropriate wefts, an additional technique is introduced of using a fixation braid at both edges. (See fig. 161.)

The fixation technique, giving a better finish to the lower edge, is really a three-ply braid. A wider technique forming a five-ply braid and a method of forming a turned-back fringe are shown in figure 162.

The three methods of lower edge finish by thickening the lower edge also strengthen it. The right corner is turned by either of the methods used with the left corner. The right edge is defined and continued upwards for the depth of the working sections in the usual way of turning in the dextrals as they reach the edge. The body is completed by a series of working sections.

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Figure 161.—Fine mat; alternative left corner technique, lower edge, and three-weft braid:

Figure 161.—Fine mat; alternative left corner technique, lower edge, and three-weft braid:

a, the lower edge is formed as far as the turn of the weft (5) by turning up both elements of the double sinistral wefts to function as dextrals. To form the left corner, the first dextral laid down (1) is doubled around the sinistral (2') to run parallel with, and immediately above, the first part of its own course to act as the dextral (1'). The corner has thus been formed by the turn of one weft instead of by two wefts as in the usual method. (See fig. 152.) The left edge is continued upwards by turning the next sinistral (2') in under the sinistral above (3') to act as a dextral. The succeeding sinistrals (3' to 5') are treated similarly in turn and the technique carried upwards to reach the depth of a working section. Throughout the left edge both elements of the sinistral wefts are turned in as there are no fringe elements to provide for. The lower edge is without fringe as far as the turn of the weft (5). From now on provision is made for adding both dextral and sinistral fringe elements. The sinistral fringe element is provided as in the 'ie fau garment by turning up one element of the added double sinistral weft to function as a dextral and leaving the other down as a fringe element. Fresh dextral fringe elements are added to the turned up dextrals and in order to form a three-ply braid plait along the lower edge, each dextral weft must contain three elements. Both elements of the weft (6) like those which preceded it, have been turned up so a single fringe element (6') is added to make three elements in the weft as required. This first three-element dextral weft passes over the double sinistral (7), under the next sinistral (8), and is turned back to assist in forming the next shed. The upper element (7) of the next sinistral is turned up to act as a dextral while its lower element (7") is left down to form the sinistral fringe. The newly-added dextral fringe element (7') must therefore contain two strips to bring the dextral weft up to the required quota of three elements. The double dextral (7') is placed in position, the element (7) turned up on it and, the wefts of the working edge having been arranged, the next sinistral (9) is placed in the shed formed. b, The next plaiting movement brings the three-element dextral (6) down over the sinistral (9) when the two lower elements go on as a normal double dextral (6) but the third uppermost element (6") is turned down on the working sinistral (9) as it lies in the working shed. In the next movement, a fresh double dextral will be placed in position between the elements of (8) and over the sinistral (9) with the turned element (6"). The upper element of (8) will be turned up as a dextral to lie on the added dextral fringe elements and a new sinistral will cross above them when placed in the next working shed. c, By following the technique inaugurated by the third dextral element (6"), each successive third element when it reaches a working sinistral is turned downwards. When it reaches the lower edge, it may be turned up again to continue in the braid which is formed. Thus the double dextral (12") joined the turned up dextral (12) and after passing over and under the two crossing sinistrals was turned down on the sinistral (15) when it passed over and under the two crossing dextrals (13 and 14) to reach the edge. There it may be turned up again or left out in the fringe. The third elements of the dextrals by their downward turn define the upper edge of the fixation braid as shown in figure. The technique is continued throughout the plaiting of the lower edge.

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In a mat observed during plaiting, the working edge consisted of 64 dextrals divided into two sets. New wefts are formed individually by overlaying and dropping the end of the shortened weft on the under surface after the new weft has been fixed by a number of plaiting movements. The lower ends of the new wefts are on the upper surface of the mat. The loose ends are cut off close under the edge of a crossing weft for concealment, and trimming may take place at any stage or after completion of the mat.

Figure 162.—Fine mat, lower border, five-weft braid finish (left) and turned back fringe finish (right):

Figure 162.—Fine mat, lower border, five-weft braid finish (left) and turned back fringe finish (right):

in the five-weft braid, the method of forming three-element dextrals (fig. 161) is followed. The third element, however, crosses over two and under two crossing sinistrals before it is turned down on a working sinistral upon which it in turn crosses over two and under two crossing dextrals before it again reaches the lower edge. From the lower edge it is again turned upwards as in the three-weft braid finish. The other method occurred in the same mat as the five-weft braid and followed on the right as shown in the figure. When the sinistral (1) was placed in the shed, another double weft (2) was placed above it with its short end (2') turned inwards. The lower end (2") was turned at the edge and took its place in the plaiting edge as the orthodox dextral. Before the plaiting movement closed down over the sinistral part (2'), the end above the third raised working dextral was lifted to prevent it from being included in the plaiting and so left free as a fringe element. The working edge on the right shows the working sinistral (8) in the shed with the fresh double strip (9) placed above it. The raised working dextrals have closed down over the shed, but the upper end (9') of the fresh strip has been raised above the third raised dextral (5) and so remains as a fringe with those to the left. No fringe elements are added to the dextrals but the fringe ends on the garment fall down to mingle with those from the lower edge. The sinistrals near the edge contain four elements and the dextrals two.

The left edge of the last working section is built up, the left upper corner formed in the same way as the other corners and the upper finishing edge dealt with as in figure 163.

The upper edge is carried along with the three-weft braid finish and the right corner finished off with the three-ply braid tail as in the shaggy cloak garments (fig. 164). (See Pl. XXX, C.)

The knotting of the braid tail marks the completion of the plaiting technique, which may have taken months and even years of careful work, sometimes involving strained eyesight and damaged vision. It is little wonder page 280that sometimes the upper border is left as an ordinary plaiting edge and finished off by running it under a sewing machine. At the same time it is sad to realize that a continuous line of white cotton stitches has taken the place of the carefully turned edge, the neat three-weft braid, and the triumphantly knotted tail perfected by the deft fingers of generations of craftswomen.

Owing to unavoidable slight variations in weft widths, the side edges are never quite straight and the completed garment never exactly rectangular.

Figure 163.—Fine mat, upper edge. This is a variation of the method shown in figure 158 with the 'ie fau, where after the new sinistral from below is laid in the shed formed at the working edge, an element of the top dextral is turned down over it to define the edge. In the 'ie fau, the turned down dextral runs down the whole length of the working edge and projects below as a body tag. In the fine mat, the turned-down dextral supplies the third element to form a braid reinforcement as in the case of the lower border:

Figure 163.—Fine mat, upper edge. This is a variation of the method shown in figure 158 with the 'ie fau, where after the new sinistral from below is laid in the shed formed at the working edge, an element of the top dextral is turned down over it to define the edge. In the 'ie fau, the turned down dextral runs down the whole length of the working edge and projects below as a body tag. In the fine mat, the turned-down dextral supplies the third element to form a braid reinforcement as in the case of the lower border:

a, The working edge of 8 dextrals at the left upper corner have been separated into two sets of alternates and the working sinistral (1") placed in the shed. Of the top double dextral, the upper element (1) has been turned back to comply with the check technique, while the under element (1'). is turned down at right angles upon the sinistral (1") to form the turn that defines the edge, and also to supply the third element. b, The next complete movement consists of reversing the two sets of alternates over the new sinistral (1") and provides a shed for the next sinistral. Only part of the movement is shown in (b). Thus the top dextral (1) has been brought over the sinistral, the weft (2) picked up and brought back, (3) brought over and (4) back. Here the usual movement stops, for the turned-down element (1') to function as a third element in the braid must return to the edge. It is therefore turned at right angles to its course as shown. c, The weft movement from (4) is now continued by bringing (5) forward so that it carries the third element (1') under it and reversing (6, 7 and 8) respectively. The shed is ready for the next sinistral. With each movement, however, the dextral which was top in the last movement drops out of action in the working set while a new one from below completes the complement. Thus the weft (1) is finished with and acts as a fringe element. The top weft in the working set is now (2) which has been turned back. d, Here the next sinistral (2") has been placed in position and the weft movement made over it. Thus, the under element of the top weft (2) was turned down on the sinistral before the reversing of the dextrals took place. After the wefts (2 and 4) had been turned forward and (3 and 5) brought back, the turned-down third element (2') is turned forward at right angles and the weft (6) turned forward with it. The new weft (9) now comes into the working combination in place of the discarded (1). Thus, the under elements of the top wefts are turned down on the new sinistral and are turned at right angles on the under surface of the third dextral weft from the top which crosses over the sinistral With this weft it reaches the upper edge. With the weft element (5) which carries the turned back third element (1') every top weft will have three elements. One of these forms the turn leaving two in the dextral fringe elements. The ends of the sinistrals after crossing the upper edge form the second or upper layer of the fringe.

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The fringes at the upper and lower borders range from 6 to 8 inches in length. (See Pl. XXX, B, C, D.) Unsplit butt strips are sometimes found ill the lower fringe, due to the split individual wefts having been added as the dextrals and the united part not being subsequently split.

Figure 164.—Fine mat, upper edge finish, and right upper corner braid finish.

Figure 164.—Fine mat, upper edge finish, and right upper corner braid finish.

The three-weft braid finish of the upper edge is obvious. As the upper and right edges converge, the working edge is reduced to the three working dextrals (1, 2, 3) which are plaited into a braid tail and knotted (4).

Ornamentation. The technical upper border is further embellished with two forms of ornamentation; triangles or pointed strips of the prepared weft material and rows of feathers. 1. The forms and technique of the weft material ornamentation are shown in figure 165. In one mat, a row of wide strips was sewn on about 0.5 inch from the edge and the lower ends split to augment the fringe. The lower technical border is left plain, but one mat was seen with a row of ornamental triangles at both fringe borders. 2. A fine mat is not considered perfect without a row of red feathers along the technical upper border. (See Pl. XXX, D.) The red feathers of the Fijian parrakeet (Lorius solitarius) were those used. They were probably obtained originally by barter and as reciprocal presents, but Pratt (23, p. 261) states the birds were introduced into Samoa and kept by the natives for the sake of their red feathers to ornament fine mats.

The feathers are knotted along a thread in exactly the same manner as in preparing feather kilts. (See fig. 143.) The thread carrying the feathers is laid along the base of the triangular ornamentation and attached by stitches which loop over the thread and pass through the mat. In most mats the feathers form a continuous line, but, sometimes, owing to a scarcity of feathers, short lengths are used with gaps between. (See Pl. XXX, D.)

The fine mats are worn around the waist as a skirt, doubled so that the technical finishing edge hangs down with the red feathers in front. The two lower edges are adjusted so that the fringe from the edge at the back reinforces those of the front. In a mat made with the triangular ornamentation on the opposite edge and opposite surface to the red feathers, the edge at the back is allowed to hang down a little lower and show the triangular ornamentation below the interior fringe. The mats are kept in position usually by a fusi girdle of bark cloth. (See Pl. LIV, C.)