06 March 2011

Do-it-yourself: How to make a Tongan mat

Mark wearing a ta'ovala
Imagine you visit Tonga and see the beautiful formal waist mats (the Tongan equivalent of a suit) that people wear and the fine mats people give at ceremonies. You decide you want to buy one, but are surprised that most regular waist mats, or ta'ovalas, cost upwards of $100 USD! You are clever with your hands, so you decide you will make one yourself. After all, it looks difficult, but how hard can weaving a bunch of strips of... something... be?

First, you need to find a pandanus plant. Or several, considering that you'll need to pick about 100 leaves from it. This is what mats are usually made of.*

Look for pandanus like these, but watch out. Non-poisonous creepy-looking 4cm-long spiders like to build webs in the groves! 
The next step is to remove the spiky thorns and spine from each leaf. Run a knife up along the leaf blade of each leaf. When you're done, you'll need to coil them in tight rolls to prepare them for boiling.

Removing spines from pandanus leaves
Next, you'll want a very large pot, one that a small woman or a large child could comfortably hide in. They won't be hard to find, because these pots are sold everywhere in Tonga, for under $50 USD. You'll want to prepare a wood fire rather than putting it on your stove, because you'll have to boil the rolls of pandanus in it for over 8 hours, and you'll use up your stove gas. After the rolls are properly boiled, peel them apart and save only the more flexible half of each leaf.

Peeling the boiled pandanus leaves
Gather your flexible leaves into bundles of 20, and leave them in the sea for 8 days. 

A bundle bleaching in the seawater
After a week, your pandanus leaves will be bleached white. Take them out of the sea, rinse them in freshwater, and coil them again.

Leaves ready to be washed and dried after their week-long soak
Shake out your coils, and hang them on your clothesline to dry. Once they are dry, they'll look like the picture below, and you'll be ready to start weaving. Alternatively, you could bypass all of the preparation above, and buy pre-treated pandanus rolls in the market for about $20 TOP (or $10 USD) at the market. They look like large, fibrous cinnamon rolls, and you'll need 4 for a decently-sized waist mat.

Dried, prepared leaves ready to be used
Next, wait for a good, rainy day to start weaving, preferably with a group of friends. If you're weaving alone, it may take three months of work or more to finish one mat, but with a group, it will be a quick one month's work to make one mat. Pick up one strip, and with a thin piece of metal held against the strip with your thumb, scrape along it's length to soften it up. Then, cut each wide strip into uniform smaller strips, of less than 1cm each. Line up one set of strips, and weave another strip over-under for about 5cm. Add another strip next to it and continue weaving in the same way until your mat is finished.
A half-finished mat, with long strips waiting to be woven into the next band of mat
Finally, you will end up with something like this:**

A fine mat, finished in the Niuatoputapu style, waiting to be sold.
* These are not comprehensive instructions for weaving an entire mat. Consult with a professional before attempting this project on your own. 
** Another good explanation can be found on the blog of our friends Jim and Lynn.

These beautiful pictures were taken by the Tonga Development Bank branch manager in Niuatoputapu, for our entry in the Association of Development Financing Institutions in Asia and the Pacific (ADFIAP) award for development finance-led poverty reduction.

The islands of Niuatoputapu and Niuafo'ou are northern-most in Tonga, and are actually closer to Samoa and Fiji than to the other Tongan islands. The distance between Niuatoputapu and where we live in Tongatapu is like the distance between San Francisco and LA in the US, but only if there was mostly water in between, and if both LA and San Francisco were one-onehundredth of their current size (Niuatoputapu has 1,000 people, and Tongatapu has 35,000 people). Niuatoputapu was devastated by the 2009 tsunami that affected Samoa, and many people lost their homes and livelihoods.

The bank's Niuatoputapu project helps the individuals affected by that tsunami by giving small loans to handicraft enterprises, and has already seen pretty exciting results. The creation of fine mats from pandanus leaves is one of the sole sources of income on the island, and people were devastated when approximately 58% of pandanus plants were destroyed by the 2009 tsunami. Now, the plants have grown back, allowing women, with the help of the project funds, to start weaving fine mats to be sold this June in Tongatapu at a national handicraft show. Approximately 90% of the handicrafts to be sold are funded by the bank's project.

Last year, TDB won the same award for two current projects: a microlending product and a New Zealand Aid-funded product. The microlending product helps people who have skills but no collateral to start small businesses, while the NZ product encourages small business growth within the productive sectors; Agriculture, Industry & Business, Fishing and Women Development Groups.


  1. Another great post.

  2. This post is extremely well written! I think we have a writer on our hands. Great job Elena. I feel as though I am there with you experiencing this.


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