Mat-making and basketry are skills known to every Borneo society. The rainforest abounds in suitable raw materials: reeds, leaves, barks or rinds. These ever-renewable fibres were fashioned into mats and baskets for everyday use; until the early 20th century few longhouses had furniture other than maybe a storage chest inside their family rooms. Sitting, eating, sleeping was done on the floor, on mats.

 

Pandan

One fast-growing plant found mostly in the brackish coastal swamps, Pandanus spp, is a very popular mat-making material which can be processed into a soft, pliable mat.

Besides sitting and sleeping on, pandan mats were generally used to wrap articles, to make temporary awnings or rain shelters, to quickly run up an interior wall in a house, to cover the slimy floorboards of a boat if important passengers were expected. Pandan mats were used as sails for small coastal craft too; cheaper than canvas, if not as durable.

 

Rattan

One of the most versatile rainforest products, the climbing palm known as Malacca Cane or rattan (rotan, Calamus spp.), is used to make baskets of every kind: strong carrying baskets, storage containers, and finely worked containers for a lady’s personal belongings.

Rattan is also used to make mats. The Penan people, until recently a nomadic group roaming the hilly regions of  Sarawak’s interior, make mats of finely stripped rattan skin. To enhance the effect of the decorative patterns, part of the working material is stained black. Today other colours are used, but the classic Penan mat is intricately figured in black and white. It is said that some Penan mats are so densely worked that they can  be used to carry water over short distances!

The Orang Ulu make a solid mat by threading lengths of whole or halved rattan canes side by side. The ends of this tikar lampit are bruised and teased to expose some free fibre, which is plaited to make a strong edge; modern variants of this mat have plastic braiding stitched all round.

 

Bark Strips

Sarawak’s mat-makers are women – almost all of them anyway. One type of sturdy floor mat, spread out to reinforce the sometimes fragile longhouse floor when large numbers of visitors are expected, is inevitably made by men.

The Bidayuh fashion a heavy-duty mat which is worked at right angles, in principle like weaving, of split rattan canes as a warp, and inch-wide strips of bark cloth as a weft. These mats are meant to be useful, not beautiful, though a neatly worked and finished tikar kelasah is a handsome floor covering in the right place.

Besides strengthening the floor in crowd situations, this mat is put to many everyday uses such as drying agricultural produce on the longhouse verandah. It is the sitting-mat of choice for outdoor ceremonies and picnics, when a finer mat might get spoiled by contact with the damp ground.

 

Conclusion

Changing lifestyles make mats and baskets redundant for many Malaysians; the new status symbols are a piece of linoleum or carpet on the floor, a designer handbag, and plastic for everything.  Part of the mat-maker’s craft survives thanks to the tourist market, even if full-sized sleeping mats are not suitable as souvenirs…

A number of young Sarawakian designers are pioneering new uses of an old skill: dinner mats, table runners, whole table covers, wall hangings, even pillows with mat-woven insets are new applications of the mat fabric, in new, adapted shapes.  A modern taste for rattan furniture and interior decorations made of reed or cane will help to take the skill of centuries into the third millennium.