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Samoan Material Culture

Famous Mats

Famous Mats

Fine mats with a history assumed a sentimental value out of all proportion to their intrinsic value. Songs have been composed giving the history and changes of name of some of them. The historical value exceeded that of the fineness of plait, though where both existed the value was naturally enhanced. Some of them, worn by age, have been patched again and again and the number of patches adds to the value. A mat seen at Savaii belonging to the talking chief Timu of Safotu, had a very fine plait, was brown with age, and had many patches. It had been the property of Malietoa Laupepa and was named Lauao-o-Tuiatua. The Ripley family of Leone have one named Faauma-i-tuavao. It is 6 feet square, brown with age, and beautifully fine with 22 wefts to the inch. It is a source of expense in keeping repaired as very few can now do the fine repairing required. A particularly expert old woman when called in must have a pig killed for her. She has to be fed well during the long period she takes in leisurely repairing the mat and has to have a substantial present as well. A master builder of Savaii once hatched a plot to obtain possession of it. He ingratiated himself with the unsuspecting Fepuleai Ripley and after working, up a friendship suggested building a house for his father. The father at last consented. The beautiful long house that stands at Leone, and which is the best in eastern Samoa, was duly built with expert care as to detail. When it came to payment, however, the master builder repudiated all the fine mats and cash liberally offered and demanded the one fine mat known as Faauma-i-tuavao. He tried to insinuate that it formed part of the price by mutual understanding. The friendship and months of labor had all been part of a scheme to obtain possession of the famous mat. A less strong character than Mr. Ripley, Senior, would have succumbed to ceremonial page 320pressure but he refused in no uncertain manner and the mat remained with the family.

Interaction of custom and technique. Though tradition holds that the fine mats are very old, any fine technique must not only have time but a strong incentive to develop it. It is natural to expect that there has been an evolution in the technique of the fine mat. The gradual improvement in technique led to an increase in the material value of the mat. With increased material value it became tonga (valuable property). As such it became the material medium for expressing certain customs. This gave it a still greater value which must have reacted on technique by stimulating the women to greater effort. The finer the plaiting, the greater the value. The greater the value, the greater the incentive to fine plaiting. Women became famous for their fine plaiting and the fine and arduous work rendered the mat worthy of the high recognition it ultimately received.

Plaiting houses. The ordinary floor mats for furnishing a new house were made by the aualuma (assembly of unmarried women) who might meet together in a house set apart for plaiting. The real plaiting house (fale lalanga) was, however, occupied by an assembly of expert women, mostly married, who met to plait fine mats on the invitation of a high chief who kept them in food and made appropriate presents. Apart from such a working bee, women were constantly at work plaiting fine mats to supply their own family needs.

Bark cloth. Bark cloth had little value in old Samoa as everyday clothing material. Its other uses in the house have been mentioned. It formed, however, a useful if less valuable medium of reward and exchange. Talking chiefs were rewarded with siapo at the chief's sua meal and in ceremonial kava drinking when he called the cups. A high chief desirous of adding to his prestige would perhaps pay with fine mats but for many occasions, siapo was correct. At lesser weddings, bark cloth enters into the presents. In more recent times as fine mats are becoming scarcer, bark cloth is taking their place in ceremonial. Talking chiefs and others attend ceremonial gatherings wearing siapo. Bark cloth now figures largely in presents to visitors. In western Samoa, the Administration stopped the giving of fine mats as a policy measure for the good of the people, and bark cloth took their place at weddings and funerals. Greater quantities are given, however, to maintain the standard of value. For trade, and to fulfil social obligations, bark cloth making is still a live craft with every prospect of surviving for years to come. Samoan cloth never reached the stage of excellence that it did in other islands, such as Hawaii. This may be partly due to so much of women's best work and skill being directed towards plaiting the vastly more important fine mats supplemented by the shaggy mats of 'ie fau and 'ie sina, and partly to the difference of technique in manufacture.