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Making Cattail Mats By Woodland Indian Educational Programs Demonstrated by Jessica Diemer-Eaton Special thanks to Christina Zirpoli for the photos Special thanks to Walt Godek for the cattails
Exterior-use cattail mats were used to cover and insulate wigwams. They are probably most well-known in the western Great Lakes region, however such mats were utilized historically all over the Northeastern cultural area. They were created in the most resourceful manner, with no excess time given to their creation as they had short life-spans when used on the exterior of the home (thought to be about 3 years) unlike the interior mats which were carefully woven with fantastic designs.
Cattails are cut when matured. In most areas of the northeast, this will be from mid-June to late August. The cattail leaves are then separated and laid on the ground in a breezy spot for the next few days, until they lose most of their green color.
So why use cattail leaves and not the cattail stalk or round cane grasses? Because the leaves are thick and foamy, large enough to be sewn through when making the mat. Such foamy leaves also acts as-built in insulation, and the leaves’ shape naturally guides water down and away from the mat.
Before using the dried cattails, they were moistened. Some have historically said cattail mat making was a morning project as the morning dew automatically moistened the cattail leaves.
So why then are the leaves dried for a few days only to be moistened before using? Because the fresh, green cattail leaves will shrink as they dry, and if used before they shrink, they will certainly create gaps between the leaves. The cattail leaves must be moistened before use in order to make them less brittle when working with them.
When starting a cattail mat, a cord that serves to be the top edge in which the cattails are secured to must be run horizontally. The length of the cord dictates the length of the cattail mat. To secure each cattail leaf, fold the bottom of the leaf over the string and use another cord to secure each fold. In the case of double-leaf mats, each leaf is matched with another, bottom to top, before it is folded over the cord and secured. Remember to alter each leaf: front, back, front, back, and so on.
The next step is sewing the body of the mat together. About 6 inches from the top, the first string is sewn through the leaves horizontally; the traditional flat needle with a central threading hole employed historically for this task was usually made from a section of deer or buffalo rib, however a modern upholstery needle can be used for the same task. The cord was historically made from nettles, milkweed, or dogbane (Indian hemp) fibers, but if you are not a cordage maker, then craft hemp of a small gauge will do the job. Such cord can be used single or doubled. When the needle and cord are passed through a section of leaves, care must be given to keep pressure on the leaves where the needle is passing or risk tearing the leaves where sewn. The horizontal sewing is continued every 6-8” until the bottom of the mat is reached, where a raw edge is left. A raw edge is preferred as it will not impede the water from running down and off the bottom edge of the mat.
So why are the cattail mats sewn and not woven? By sewing the leaves together side-by-side, it created a seal between most sides of the leaves. This seal then only became stronger as the mat got wet and swelled, protecting the inner layers of cattail mats under it, therefore keeping the home interior dry. If the mats were woven, the weft cords would create gaps between the vertical cattail leaves, as well as make horizontal depressions that would pool water and guide the water to the spaces between the leaves. With this, sewing was generally less time consuming than weaving, which is a good thing since these are exterior mats. Such exterior mats probably had about a 3 year lifespan, which was short when compared to the interior woven mats.
The result is a cattail mat that is light weight and rolls up, making it a perfect material to transport to a location of use (ex. hunting camps). When the mat is layered with others, 3 to 5 layers thick on a wigwam frame, these mats not only keep the residents inside dry in rain, but also warm in snowy weather. While bark sheets could also be used to cover a wigwam, they did not insulate the home in the way interior and exterior reed mats did.
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