Fine mat weaving

Photo: Jane Ussher

A traditional mat weaving project is giving women the opportunity to learn new skills and revive a declining cultural tradition.

Visit any fa'alavelave and you will notice the handmade woven mats, called ie sae.

The ie sae are made from weaving the treated leaves from a specific species of the abundant pandanus. Although they are called mats, they are regarded as sacred cloths and are never used on floors.  They are given as traditional gifts, exchanged as a form of currency and worn in important ceremonies such as weddings and funerals. The skill in making ie sae has passed from generation to generation over centuries.

In the past few decades less and less women were teaching the mat-weaving skills to their daughters. It takes around eight months to produce a single mat, sometimes years. It was easier to make money in the growing tourism sector, and people began to use mass-produced, larger and lower quality ie sae. The mats began to lose their cultural value.

But WIBDI recognised the potential the mats had in generating incomes for rural women. They found teachers among the elderly, and persuaded them to go into rural communities and share their knowledge of traditional weaving techniques.  Rural women were keen to take part in the project because making mats enables them to stay at home with their children. It provides them with an income in areas where there are no jobs, no ways to earn money.  And the ie sae reach a premium price because of their exceptional quality. For each mat, a woman receives around NZ$2,000.  

Overseas buyers can become part of WIBDI’s fine mat sponsorship scheme. Weavers are commissioned to weave a mat and paid weekly as it is woven. This allows for high level quality control of the weaving process and also provides a regular income to the weavers, helping them to develop skills in budgeting and family financial planning.

On film: watch the Campbell Live story about WIBDI's revival of fine-mat weaving

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