Tying the Cattail Leaves

Collection

Obviously, one of the key materials you need to make a sewn cattail mat is cattails!  You'll need quite a few if you want to make a mat of considerable size.  The amount you can collect in an hour may be able to get you two feet of mat, but that can depend on the type you get and how well you take care of them.

Most Native American cattail mats were made from broadleaf cattail leaves (Typha latifolia).  These cattails often grow in stands and can be recognized in the fall by their fruit, which basically looks like a dark brown corndog.  Not all plants will have this feature when you collect them and you usually don't want fruiting plants as their leaves are often too thin.  Also, don't get confused with rushes.  Rushes are shorter than cattails and have triangular stalk cross-sections while cattails have crescent shaped stalk cross-sections.  For my study, I ended up collecting either thin broadleaf cattails or a variety called narrowleaf cattails (Typha angustifolia).  They worked fine for the purposes of my study, but I probably required more of them due to their small width.  

Cattails must be collected in late summer or fall, usually between late September and November.  The best time to collect is after the stalks have grown to their full height and lost their green color.  But you don't want to wait too long after this happens because they become frail as they stay out in the elements.  Don't forget to bring a knife to cut the thick stalks, or a stone cutting tool if you wish to avoid using modern tools.  You may want to bring twine to bundle stalks together and coverings to lay them on if you transport them in a car.  Plus, depending on the season, you may need waterproof clothing when you go out to collect.  Cattails are marsh plants!

            Leaf Preparation:   After collection, separate the stalks into the individual leaves.  Then trim them to the appropriate length for the width of the mat.  Most mats ranged between four and six feet wide.  The width of a mat depended on how tall the cattail leaves were and where the mat was to be placed on the structure.  Pick whatever width you think would work best for your project.  After trimming, sort the leaves by whether they are “inner” or “outer” leaves from a stalk.  Inner are generally thinner and taller than the outer leaves.

According to ethnographic records, after the cattail leaves had been trimmed they were spread out to dry during a few sunny days, five days in Petersen’s study (1963).   After drying the stalks they can be stored away for future use or prepared for mat construction right away.

Tying the Edge

Getting Set-Up:   After the cattails are prepared and dried they are ready to be tied to the foundation twine, or the twine that forms the top of the mat.  This top twine border can be seen on the mat to the right.  The picture below is a close-up.  When cattails leaves are tied to this twine the top border becomes known as the “selvedge.”  The foundation twine was usually tied between two posts or hung from a height. I tied mine to a bar and let it hang down.  Any strong cordage can be used for the foundation twine but in my case nettle was used.  Make sure you have enough for however long of a mat you want.  Cattail leaves are tied to the foundation twine in pairs which are lain in a specific pattern.  Before tying, the leaves have been sorted into bundles of “inner” and “outer” leaves.  The thicker outer leaves of a cattail stalk have the tips of their leaves tied on, while the thinner inner stalks have their bases tied.  Tying the tips of the outer stalks means they will stand as they do naturally, giving support to the base of the mat when it is finished and set up.

            Once you figure out which ends are going to be tied to the top border, which may take a while to sort out, those ends then have to be soaked in hot water.  That way when you tie them on they will not snap.  

When you have your foundation twine tied between posts on the ground, or hanging, pick up your other ball of twine.  I used my basswood cord for tying the cattail leaves to the foundation twine.  To start, I tied one end of the basswood cord near the lower end of my nettle foundation twine.  Make sure you've got enough of this cord too!

 

 

 

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Arranging the Leaves:   Next, we have to prepare the leaves we're going to tie on.  To repeat what was stated above, outer stalks were left upright while inner stalks were tied upside down.  When tying leaf ends to the foundation twine, the tip of one outer stalk leaf was placed inside the concave, or scooped-out, surface of the base of an inner stalk, forming a pair.  Arranging cattail leaves this way is not necessary and may be too complicated for the first time making mat.  You can work up to making pairs this way, which is the best way to arrange them if the mat is really to be used on the outside of a structure. 

Tying the Leaves:   For the next steps, refer to the pictures to the left.  For the first row, hold a pair of leaves in the left hand with their concave, or scooped-out, surfaces facing you.  As you hold the pair of leaves in hand, pass the basswood cord forward and over the pairs, creating a loose loop.  Then lay the pairs behind the foundation twine (Figure 1).  Next, fold the ends of the cattail leaves over the twine and tuck the ends inside the loop made from the basswood cordage (Figure 2).  Then pull the basswood cord tight (See Figure 3). 

 

 

            Tie the second pair in a similar way - but reversed.  Now when you hold the leaves in your left hand, the concave sides should face away from you.  Loop the basswood twine as before, but now hold the pair of leaves over the foundation twine.  Fold the ends over the the twine and again tucked them into the basswood loop (Figure 4).  Finally, pull the cord tight and secure the cattail leaves to the foundation twine.  Pulling the cord tight also squeezes the two pairs together and gets rid of gaps.  Then just repeat the process, alternating which way the concave side faces and whether the leaf ends are folded forward or backward over foundation twine.

 

 

Alternating the two steps described above eventually creates an overall surface that is convex on both sides of the mat.  This is because every other pair on a side will be convex, and these are the pairs that are sewn on a side.  The odd ones, or concave pairs, are pushed behind and form the convex surface of the other side of the mat.

Keep tying your selvedge until the mat is as long as you want it, or until you run out of cattails.  For Native Americans, the length depended on where the mat would be put on the structure, and also how large the structure was.  Some mats were used only to wrap around the sides of wigwams while others were roof mats.  

My finished practice mats were comparatively small because I ran out of cattails!  After I had tied the leaves to the top border, I was ready to go to the next step, which was sewing the leaves together.

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