Sewn Cattail Mats

(Ritzenthaler and Ritzenthaler 1983)

Hello!  My name is Elizabeth Schultz and I am an archaeology student at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse.  This website was created in 2002 as part of my archaeology senior thesis, which was a detailed study of sewn cattail mat construction that also addressed various issues concerning the use of such mats prehistorically.  I did this using ethnographic records of Native American cultures who made such mats, descriptions of archaeological sites, and actual mats and tools housed in the Milwaukee Public Museum.  The following is a more detailed description of the construction process while the paper included more details concerning the archaeological and ethnographic aspects of this study of sewn cattail mats.  Feel free to contact me with questions or to get a copy of my paper by emailing me at the address below.  If you wish to learn more about any of these aspects of sewn cattail mats, it's best to start out with a general introduction.

Wigwams:   Prehistoric cultures of North America built a wide range of structures to live in.  One of the most common structures seen in the Midwest was the dome-shaped wigwam.  A wigwam can be seen in the photograph above, which is from Ritzenthaler and Ritzenthaler's book, The Woodland Indians of the Western Great Lakes (1983).  The floor plan of wigwams was often circular or oval and they were generally around 20 feet long by 10 feet wide, although there was an incredible amount of variation in size depending on the cultures using them and the materials available to them. 

Wigwams were made of wood saplings that were driven into the ground and then bent over and tied on top to form a dome.  Once the sapling arches were tied, horizontal crossbars were wrapped around the sides of the frame.  The covering of the wigwam would then be tied to the sapling frame.  A variety of materials were used to cover wigwams.  The wigwam seen above has sides of sewn cattail mats and a roof of birch bark sheets, both of which were tied to the sapling frame.  Other wigwams were covered with hide or combinations of elm, ash, or birch bark and cattail mats, while others were completely covered with cattail mats.  Bark wigwams often had an extra outer sapling frame in order to keep the bark sheets on.  If mats were used, they were placed so that the cattail leaves were perpendicular to the ground to better shed rain.

Many of the Native American cultures now located in the Midwest used wigwams during the winter.  Their small size and multiple layers helped to keep heat in.  Summer structures were often more open and made of bark.  When moving camps, the cattail mats and bark sheets could be easily rolled up and carried to the next habitation site.

All of the activities involving the making of the wigwam were handled by the women of Native American cultures.  Women collected the materials, prepared them, stored them, constructed the mats and bark sheets, and finally, built the wigwams themselves.

Cattail Mats

(Milwaukee Public Museum)


Sewn Cattail Mats:   The above is a partially unrolled cattail mat that was collected from a historic group of Native Americans still making such mats in Wisconsin.  The ruler in the picture is a standard foot ruler.

Sewn cattail mats should not be confused with woven mats, a mistake that countless historians made when observing Native American structures.  Woven mats were made by many prehistoric cultures, but they were never used to cover the outsides of structures because they would not be able to keep the elements out.  Instead, woven mats of various materials were used as inner wall hangings, floor mats, rolled benches, pillows, and food trays.  Sewn cattail mats were only used to cover the sides of wigwams.

The structure of a sewn cattail mat is ideally suited for an external covering.  Cattail mats flare out near the bottom, which helps them to wrap more completely around a wigwam.  They are lightweight and easy to roll-up and move to the next camp.  Plus, the method I followed resulted in a mat that essentially had two layers of cattail leaves.  Multiple layers helped shed water and was great insulation.  Some sewn cattail mats were made following different techniques which varied by regional and cultural preference.  This website describes the construction of mats following the technique of Mrs. Maggie Skinaway Wadena, an Ojibwe woman who was observed by Karen Petersen.  I recommend anyone who wishes to learn the technique to read Karen Petersenís wonderful monograph, Chippewa Mat-Weaving Techniques, which was the basis for my experiments.  A few steps were altered or excluded during my experimentation, but by-and-large her method, representing the Ojibwe method, was followed. 

One of my mats - partially complete


Mat Construction

Now that you've got some background information, we can start with the construction process.  Making a sewn cattail mat involves three main materials: the sewing needle, the cordage, and the cattails.  The activities involved in making a sewn cattail mat will be laid out in the following sections.  Click on the pictures below to follow the steps of mat construction which will be described and illustrated in the next pages.

Making the Matting Needle Making Cordage Tying the Cattails Sewing the Cattails


Results of My Study

By researching cattail mat construction, I have learned an incredible amount of cultural and archaeological information.  Since one of the materials needed to make sewn cattail mats was a bone needle, if we find this in the archaeological record, we can assume many things about the prehistoric people.  For one thing, we can make reasonable estimates as to how much work and time went into the making of sewn cattail mats.  

Time Estimates:   I kept track of how much time it took to complete the various steps of mat construction.  I was then able to figure out my rates of work and calculate how long it would take to make a full size mat, which I was unable to do myself.  My hypothetical mat was determined to be 3.5 by 1.5 meters (about 10 by 5 feet), a size that would likely be used to serve as a lower side to a wigwam perhaps 10 feet long by 10 feet wide.  Mats were made in a variety of sizes, but most size ranges recorded had similar dimensions to those that I used for my hypothetical mat.

It was found that an experienced woman would probably have been able to make a large mat in one day, but that was if she had all of the materials available to her and ready to go.  Otherwise, according to my results, the process would take a person roughly 7 eight-hour days of actual work for material collection, production, and making the mat itself, plus several more days for drying or soaking materials. 

However, most ethnographic accounts of Native Americans made it clear that mat making was done in pairs or groups.  If mats would have to be replaced every year, the activities involved would consume a very large amount of womenís work over the course of several seasons.  But there are several indications that mats were reused.  Most accounts that actually refer to sewn cattail mats note their handy attribute of being able to be rolled up and taken to the next camp.  One account refers to them being stored in the rafters of the summer bark lodge.  Obviously, people would not make the effort of doing this if the mats could not be reused the next year.  

Based on information I have seen, I am guessing that mats, if properly stored and cared for, would last at least two to three years.  If that is an accurate guess, women of a family would perhaps only have to replace 6 mats a year if an entire wigwam was covered with 12 to 14 mats, which is how many some cultures may have used, but not all.  That would be 41 days of work for one person, which may be a high figure, but with helping hands the task would have gone quickly, efficiently, and perhaps even enjoyably.  

Rolled Sewn Cattail Mat at the Milwaukee Public Museum

What Else We Can Learn About People of the Past:   Much more information, besides time expenditures, concerning the prehistoric people who made such artifacts can also be inferred when matting needles are found.  For one thing, the matting needle itself may give information, such as what species it came from, providing a small example of what animal resources they were exploiting.

Archaeologists have always been interested in the technology of humans; how objects are made, what they are made from, how they were used, and how they have changed over time.  Cattail matting and other plant materials rarely preserve in the archaeological record.  Woven matting, bags, baskets, fabric, netting, dishes, and a multitude of perishable materials are often forgotten.  It has been said that 90% or more of the materials that people made rarely survive in the archaeological record.  Any information we can get concerning that missing 90% should be of great interest to archaeologists.  Matting needles that do manage to preserve in the archaeological record can give just such information.  

Matting needles can also give archaeologists a likely idea of the form of structure that the Native Americans were living in.  Cattail mats were obviously being made and they were used most commonly on domed wigwams.  However, mats were used on other structures and we can't just say that if we find a matting needle the people must have built wigwams.  Instead it is best to look at the floor plans of buildings found at sites, along with the matting needles, if they are present, to get the best idea of the structures used.  If only a matting needle is found and there is no evidence of postmolds, or marks where wall posts had been put in the ground, it would be best to state that it is only known that cattail mats were used as structure coverings. 

Finally, we know that the women of the prehistoric cultures who left behind matting needles must have been expending considerable time and effort when making sewn cattail mats.  Because they had to seasonally exploit specific plant resources in order to collect the materials for mats, information such as when to harvest and what plants were best must have been passed down as traditional knowledge.  Cattail mats alone involve several steps in their production, steps which span the entire year.  The Native Americans obviously had a complex technology that was passed down through the years.  Mats were constructed in the best way possible for their use: linked flat panels to shed rain, a flared lower edge to better fit the wigwam sides, free lower ends to stand the mat up easier, two layers for channeling water and creating insulation, and lightweight material that was perfect for a mobile society.


References Used on this Site

Davit, C.
2001 Make a Milkweed Bracelet.  Missouri Conservationist 62(8):2-7.

Petersen, K. D.
1963  Chippewa Mat-Weaving Techniques. Anthropological Papers, Bulletin 186, No. 67. Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Ritzenthaler, R. E. and P. Ritzenthaler
1983 The Woodland Indians of the Western Great Lakes.  Natural History Press, Garden City, NY.

For the complete list of references, please feel free to email me.


Thank you so much to the Milwaukee Public Museum for the use of photos of their wonderful collection and also for use of photos from The Woodland Indians of the Western Great Lakes.  Thanks also to the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center for everything these past years and to the University of Wisconsin for hosting this page. 


By Elizabeth Schultz

May, 2002
University of Wisconsin La Crosse - Department of Sociology and Archaeology
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