Ethnology of Tokelau Islands
Pandanus Leaf Plaiting
Pandanus Leaf Plaiting
Preparation of Materials
Fala pandanus leaves are used exclusively in the making of the finer mats. The green leaves are removed from the tree and tips and butts cut off. The thorny edges are removed by a sharp-pointed fishbone or the point of a metal scraping tool which is used to pierce through the butt just inside the edge and to slit the length of the leaf. The women use their teeth to sever the butt of the outer surface of the spiny midrib on the under side of the leaf and to peel off the outer midrib surface with its thorns. The trimmed leaves are toughened by being drawn over hot coral pebbles of a ground oven. Afterward they are laid on the beach for three days to dry and bleach to a pale buff brown in the sun. They are brought indoors each night to prevent their being wet by showers. To make each leaf flat, the butt is held by the left hand and the leaf is drawn between the extended thumb and the edge of a shell or metal hook held between the first two fingers of the right hand. With the butt still in the left hand, the first leaf is wound around the fingers into a small roll. Each succeeding leaf is added to this roll by placing the butt under the tip of the preceding leaf and winding it on. The roll is fastened by tying a thin strip of laufala around the tip of the outermost leaf and through the central hole left by the fingers.
When the leaves are to be used for mat-making, each side of the leaf is stripped from the midrib, which is then discarded. The halves of leaves are flattened again and split into strips one-fourth inch wide.
Kie pandanus used in plaiting soft mats for babies and men's malos receives a longer preparatory heating before being trimmed and dried. The strips of kie are laid over a bed of green leaves on the hot coral of an oven and covered with more leaves; then heated coral is spread over these. They are left in this heat for an entire day and are then removed and carried to the sea in bundles, where they are weighted down and left to soak for five days. This soaking makes them soft and pliable. After being removed from the sea, the two layers of the leaf are split apart by making an incision across the butt of the leaf, and the upper, shiny layer is carefully separated from the dull, under layer. Both layers are washed in fresh water, trimmed at the ends, and placed in the sun to dry. Then they are flattened and rolled in the same way as described for the laufala.
Many of the mats are ornamented with black strips of dyed coconut leaves which are included with the plaiting (pl. 7, B). The black dye is produced from the charcoal of burnt fibers of coconut husks. These are ground and page 131 placed in the hollow of a coconut tree trunk where rain water has collected. The rolls of coconut leaf strips (kaulama) are set in this solution to soak until they become thoroughly blackened. Nowadays the leaf is stained with a mixture of the charred fibers and kerosene.
Sleeping mats and plaited clothing are made on a plaiting board made from a piece of canoe hull having a slightly convex surface which tilts toward the worker (pl. 8, A). The section of plaiting to be worked is kept on the surface of the board where the wefts can be easily handled and evenly laid. The mat is held against the board by a stick of kanava wood 10 or 12 inches long and 4 inches wide. The stick is slightly convex on the upper surface. The worker places her right foot on the stick as she sits with her left leg crossed and her right leg flexed against her body.
The fishbone points for splitting leaf strips and shells for scraping have been displaced by a single tool made of a rectangular piece of metal shaped to fit against the palm of the hand and between the fingers. One corner is sharpened for splitting.
The plating of a pandanus mat is commenced on a foundation strip (kaso) composed of two pairs of superimposed elements of weft material which overlap at the ends and extend in a line 4 or 5 feet long. As the plaiting develops, the foundation strip is increased by adding new elements and is carried around the entire border of the mat. Its purpose is to give a basis on which to commence the plaiting and to strengthen the edges of the mat. The first part of the foundation strip is laid horizontally on the plaiting board, the left half is turned forward at a right angle, and the strip shifted to place the apex of this angle pointing toward the worker and the two branches extending diagonally away from her to right and left (fig. 19, a). These branches will be referred to in the commencement of the plaiting as dextral and sinistral foundation strips.
Figure 19.—Foundation strip and first position of plaiting elements. a, strip of laufala turned at right angles to form basic commencement corner: 1, sinistral foundation strip during commencement of plaiting; 2, temporary dextral foundation strip during commencement of plaiting. b, addition of horizontal wefts: 3, first horizontal weft; 4, second horizontal weft; 5, 6, and 7, 8, upper elements laid across angle of foundation strip; 9, 10, and 11, 12, lower elements laid under angle of foundation strip; 13, line across middle of upper elements dividing wefts into left and right for descriptive purposes.
The mats are plaited with double strips of leaf material. The strips will be termed upper and lower elements and the pair termed the weft. The beginning of the first three rows of the check pattern at the commencement corner is plaited with the elements treated as individual wefts, which hold the wefts firmly in place until the plaiting process is fully established. Two weft elements are placed side by side horizontally to the worker under the angle of the foundation strip, and two more elements are superimposed on the first pair over the foundation strip (fig. 19, b).
The elements and foundation strip are now in position for the beginning of the plaiting process. The fingers of the left hand are pressed against the wefts over the angle of the foundation strip, while the first weft is turned to make the first corner. The divisions of the weft elements separated at this point by the fingers will be called left and right elements; the weft nearest the worker, the first, and the next weft, the second. The upper left element of the first weft is laid back with the right hand while the lower left element is brought up with a right-angled turn and carried forward over the second weft (fig. 20, a). The upper left element of the first weft is brought into place again, turned forward at right angle, and passed under the upper left element of the second weft and the sinistral foundation strip, but over the lower left element of the second weft and placed directly under the former left element of the first weft (fig. 20, b). The left elements of the first weft have now become a vertical weft extending away from the worker.
Figure 20.—Establishment of commencement corner. a, turning upper element of first vertical weft: 5, upper left element of (3) horizontal weft is placed aside; 9, lower left horizontal element is brought forward at right angles over (4) second horizontal weft at a point midway between (1, 2) foundation strips. b, turning lower element of first vertical weft: 5, upper left element of (3) horizontal weft is placed under (1) sinistral foundation strip and (8) the upper element of (4) horizontal weft, and brought forward at a right angle underneath (9) the now upper element of (14) the left vertical weft. c, turning upper and lower elements of second vertical weft: 6, upper right element of (3) horizontal weft is turned at right angles and placed under (12) the lower right element of (4) horizontal weft; 10, lower right element of (3) horizontal weft is turned at right angles and placed under (8) the upper right element of (4) horizontal weft, and over (2) the dextral foundation strip, forming (15) the right vertical weft; the left and right elements of (3) horizontal weft have now been formed into (14, 15) two vertical wefts and have established (16) the commencement corner at the angle of (1, 2) foundation strips.
By reversing the same technique, the right elements of the first weft are made into a vertical weft parallel to the left elements. To establish the check pattern, the upper right element of the first weft is brought forward, first with a right-angled turn under the dextral foundation and the right elements of the second weft. The lower right element of the first weft is brought up and passed with a right-angled turn under the upper right element of the second weft, over the dextral foundation strip, and placed directly over the other right element of the first weft (fig. 20, c).
The commencement is now established with one horizontal weft and two vertical wefts. The right vertical weft and the upper element of the left vertical weft are next carried back to form the first shed for the introduction of a new horizontal weft. The page 133 lower element of this new weft is laid under the dextral foundation strip, over the lower element of the left vertical weft, and under the sinistral foundation strip. The upper element of the left vertical weft and the lower element of the right vertical weft are put down and the upper element of the new weft is laid over these and both foundation strips. The upper element of the right vertical weft is laid over this. The second horizontal weft is turned into two new vertical wefts by the same technique as described for the first weft and is followed by the introduction of a fourth horizontal weft in the same process as described for the third weft.
Figure 21.—Establishing a corner in plaiting. a, commencement of first turn of corner, foundation strip (1) represented by dotted lines as it is hidden by the plaiting at this stage, completed plaiting of commencement section up to the last sinistral weft (3) omitted to simplify illustration: 1, foundation strip along commencement edge is turned forward at right angles to establish (2) foundation strip at right edge of mat; 5, upper element of (3) last sinistral weft to be introduced into section before corner is turned is carried at right angles under the angle of (1, 2) foundation strips; 4, last dextral weft turned up from commencement edge; 7, lower element of (3) last sinistral weft. b, finish of first turn of corner: 7, lower element of sinistral weft is turned forward at right angles and laid over corner of (1) foundation strip and along (5) turned part of upper element of (3) sinistral weft. c, commencement of second turn of corner: 7, now upper element of temporary dextral weft is turned at right angles to the left and placed under (4) dextral weft and (2) dextral foundation strip. d, finish of second turn of corner: 5, now lower element of temporary dextral weft is turned at right angles to the left and placed under upper element of (4) dextral weft, and over (2) right edge foundation strip.
When sufficient weft elements have been introduced to firmly establish the corner of the mat and a working edge, the plaiting is turned, placing the sinistral foundation strip vertical and the dextral foundation strip horizontal to the worker. These strips now form the left edge and commencement edge of the mat. This also places the wefts diagonal to the worker, the former vertical wefts becoming the dextral wefts and the former horizontal wefts, the sinistral (fig. 21, d).
The plaiting is now worked to the right along the working edge, and all new wefts are added as sinistral wefts. The upper end of each sinistral weft, turned on the left foundation strip, becomes a dextral weft; and the lower end, turned on the commencement edge foundation strip, becomes another dextral weft. In the plaiting process a constant number of dextral wefts are kept in the working edge. As each new dextral weft turned up at the commencement edge is added to the working edge, a top dextral weft is dropped.
When the desired length of the mat has been reached on the commencement edge, the foundation strip is turned forward at right angles. The right-hand sinistral weft is turned twice, repeating the same technique of turning the weft on an edge to form the corner over the foundation strip angle. The upper element of the right-hand sinistral weft is turned at a right angle under the corner of the foundation strip but over the lower element and left projecting from the right edge (fig. 21, a). The lower element is brought over the upper element, turned at right angles, and passed across the corner of the foundation strip. This completes the normal turn on the commencement edge (fig. 21, b). The process is repeated for the first turn on the right side. The upper element, as the weft now stands, is turned left at right angles and passed under the lower element of the first dextral weft (fig. 21, c). The lower element of the weft is brought around the upper element, turned at right angles, and carried between the foundation strip and the upper element of the first dextral weft, completing the corner (fig. 21, d).
When the mat has reached the desired breadth on the left edge, the upper left corner is formed by turning the left foundation strip at right angles to the left end, making two edge turns of the weft, passing over this angle by the same process as described in making the lower right corner of the commencement edge. The plaiting process is completed at the upper horizontal foundation strip by turning the dextral wefts over it, forming the finishing edge. As the last working section is plaited to the finishing edge, the sinistral wefts are left projecting beyond the foundation strip (fig. 22, a). The dextral wefts are turned by the same technique as on the other edges, but as each is turned down to become a sinistral weft, it encounters the sinistral wefts of the plaiting already laid in the shed of the working edge (fig. 22, b). The downward-projecting sinistral weft from the finishing edge is overlaid on the normal sinistral weft and included in the plaiting for several rows. The end of the downward projecting weft is allowed to extend from the plaiting until this has been finished, when all the ends and the projecting sinistral wefts at the finishing edge are torn off underneath crossing dextral wefts.
The turned-in wefts of the finishing and right edges overlap as these edges approach each other at the upper right corner. To avoid extra thickness of the mat from this overlapping weft material, the inner elements are torn off at the edges and only the upper elements of wefts turned in from the finishing, and the lower elements of the wefts turned in from the right edge are retained in the plaiting. In making the upper right corner, the foundation strip of the finishing edge is torn off at the point where it crosses the right edge foundation strip. This strip is turned to the left at right angles and overlaid on the foundation strip of the finishing edge. When the turning of the wefts on the finishing and right edges is carried to the upper right or finishing corner, two dextral wefts remain projecting at the angle formed by the foundation strip. The page 135 left weft of these two is torn off at the corner, the right weft is turned to form the corner, and the elements are interlaced in the plaiting covering the ends of the left weft. The technique is the same as that described for turning the right-hand corner of the commencement edge (figs. 20–21).
Figure 22.—Turning the finishing edge in plaiting. a, commencement of turn: 1, foundation strip; 2, a sinistral weft introduced along working edge of last section; 3, uppermost dextral weft of working section; 4, upper element of (3) dextral weft; 5, lower element of (3) dextral weft, passed under (1) foundation strip, along finishing strip, along finishing edge, and turned at right angles to cross (1) foundation strip and (7) second dextral weft, and to lie over (2) introduced sinistral weft. b, completing turn: 4, upper element of (3) uppermost dextral weft of working section is carried across (1) foundation strip, turned down at right angles, passed under foundation strip and over lower element of (7) next dextral weft to the right, and laid under (5) now become the upper element on sinistral weft; the plaiting is continued and part of (3) weft overlying (2) sinistral weft is incorporated with it; 2, 6, 8, 10, ends of sinistral wefts, are torn off at finishing edge when plaiting is completed; 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, 17, dextral wefts, are turned at finishing edge and incorporated in plaiting as part of sinistral wefts in last working section; ends of these dextral wefts, after they have been turned as weft 3, are torn off under cross wefts, when plaiting is completed.