Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Tongan Mats

There are several examples of finely woven mats from Tonga in the Cook-voyage collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum.  The mats were woven (or, technically, plaited) by women, and were used for many different purposes.  Large mats were used as sails for canoes  - a link to an article from the British Museum discussing the conservation of a unique matting sail, but from Tahiti, can be found here:

More finely woven mats were used as clothing, and could be valuable commodities amongst the people of Tonga.  Indeed, these mats have been described as ‘the most important and powerful objects in Tonga…heirlooms passed from generation to generation as treasures…objects of prestige and power’ * They were made from the leaves of the Pandanus palm, of which there are several types.  The leaves need to be prepared for weaving by stripping off the thorny edges and the point and bleaching in the sun, or possibly in seawater, depending on the type of Pandanus. The leaves are split into strips for weaving.

The Pandanus strips used to weave the mat

Deep creases are present in the mat, a result of folding for storage
The mat I am currently working on is described in the ‘Catalogue of Curiosities’ as ‘No. 54  a small smooth matt’ .  It is made from Pandanus strips 2-3 mm wide, and its dimensions are approximately 168 x 132cm.

The mat has been folded for many years, so that the fold lines have become deep creases. It is possible to humidify the mat, using an ultrasonic mister, to make the creases in the mat less pronounced.

The mat is still very soft and flexible, which makes the process easier.  While working on the mat, I found an area that had been carefully repaired while the mat was in use on Tonga, showing that their owners valued these objects enough to spend the time skilfully weaving in a patch to cover the hole.

The mat partially humidified, showing the
Forster label (No.54)

The repaired area on the mat - the repair
is even less noticable on the other side

 *Kaeppler, A. ‘Kie Hingoa: Mats of Power, Rank, Prestige and History’, Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol 108,  no.2, 1999