Sewing the Mat


Sewing is the final step in mat construction and is done using the needle described previously.  Women did the sewing, and mat-work in general, when the ground was damp or moist.  To keep them workable, the leaves were sprinkled with water whenever they tried out.  As stated in the previous section, only every other pair is sewn on a side, these being the convex pairs.  Sewing was done in such a way that a flat, linked surface was created, almost like vertical siding.  Because the leaves were sewn together, instead of woven or tied, there were few gaps in the surface of the mat.

(Ritzenthaler and Ritzenthaler 1983)


Sewing the Leaves:   Once again, the steps for sewing can be seen in the pictures to the left.  To begin sewing, thread your needle with some cordage.  I used basswood to sew mine.  I cut my twine to be twice as long as the length of the mat, plus a few extra feet to spare.  Remember, you will only be sewing the convex pairs on each side of a mat, which will be every other pair.  To make this easier, you will want to push the concave pairs to the back.  This process creates the two layers of the mat, which aid insulation and in channeling water off of the finished mat.


To begin sewing, poke the needle up through the bottom leaf of a convex pair (Figure 1).  Then poke the needle into the top leaf  - but not up and out!  Instead, pass it through the interior of the top leaf (Figure 2).  Then do the same to the next pair of convex leaves, piercing the bottom leaf of the pair and then going across through the upper leaf.  Every few pairs or so you can pull the needle and cordage through the leaves while keeping a hand pressing down on the leaves to keep damage to a minimum.  When pulling the cord through, be sure to leave some hanging out of the end of the mat so that you can tie it when the row is finished.  This sewing technique links the paired leaves together and also links adjacent convex pairs together.  If done correctly and carefully, the cordage is never even seen.  As you can see in Figure 4, I was not able to keep my sewing completely hidden.  The technique takes practice!

            Continue Sewing:   Once you have sewn to the end of the row, flip your mat over and sew the back convex pairs the same way.  Once you've finished sewing the other side of the mat, the cord ends can be knotted together or attached to side sticks used for standing the mat up.  Next, you'll want to do the same thing about 7 inches down from the row you just did.  Mats at the Milwaukee Public Museum all had rows sewn at different intervals, but 7 inches was about the average.  If you use this interval, you may be able to get seven rows on a four foot tall mat.  Other mats, perhaps more ornate, could be sewn at much smaller intervals, such as every 5 inches.  When you start sewing rows closer to the bottom of the mat, you will notice that the top leaf of the pair becomes too thin to sew through.  When that happens, twist the pair so that the leaf layers are reversed, top to bottom, and you will be able to sew once again. 

Finishing the Ends:   You don't want to sew a row at the very bottom of the mat.  The lower end of the cattail mat was usually left free because it was easier to stand the mat on the ground.  Sometimes for the last row the cord was simply passed over and under about every five pairs or so, loosely binding the ends of leaves.  The ends of the leaves could also be braided or woven to finish the edges, as you can see in the picture of the mat below, which was also sewn extremely well.  The ends of mats could also be braided to another finished mat in order to create a double mat for extra thickness.

(Milwaukee Public Museum)

Done!   Once completed, mats were attached to the frame of wigwams using basswood fiber.  Several mats usually made up the bottom layers of the wigwam siding, but could also be used on the roof or to cover the entire structure.  In that case, the mats were placed so that a square hole was left at the center for a smoke hole.  Mats were attached so that the edges overlapped to better shed the elements.  If the poles and siding were ready, a winter wigwam could easily be set up in a few hours.  When a camp was abandoned, the mats were taken down, rolled up, and carried away to the next camp.

Through this study I was able to learn just a little part of how people lived hundreds of years ago and how they used the environment around them.  Obviously, the ways we do things today are not the only ways they can or have been done.  Humans are remarkably creative and unique, meaning that there will always be something new, useful, interesting, and enlightening to be learned by studying other cultures of today and cultures of the past.

I hope you enjoyed learning about sewn cattail mats and the people who made them.  If you are going to attempt any parts of the process, I wish you the best of luck!  



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