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April 19, 2004


In the warm and humid tropics, various cultures have devised ways and means to making leaving more tolerable, if not comfortable. The Philippines is no exemption and nowhere is this solution as obvious as in the Filipino use of variety of materials for making sleeping mats. Various species of reeds profusely grow in swampy areas, as well as a number of palm species, and rattan. These materials remain cool in the heat of the day, are smooth to touch, and porous enough to let ventilation through. Throughout the country one encounters a variety of mat making traditions using indigenously grown materials and embellishing these creations with highly imaginative designs.

            Aside from the smaller exhibitions at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, there has been no exhibitions focusing on the Philippine woven mats. The commonness of sleeping mats throughout the country guarantees it being for granted. Alongside with the paper cut-out pastillas wrapper or the intricately carved food decor of the achara or the delicate tooth pick tree – they are relegated to the realm  of “kaartehan ng matatanda” and therefore promptly forgotten.

            A closer look at our mat tradition will attest to the artistry and the superb skills required to accomplish the intricacy evident in this woven works of art. There is only a limited data existing on the subject. With the rapid social changes going on the subject, there is a need to define what these traditions are. Fortunately, many of these traditions are still very much alive and it appears that it will remain relevant traditions for as long as the tropical weather endures.

Badjao/Samal Mat

The Badjao and Samal mat, design-wise, is undisputedly the most interesting tradition in the whole country. They are the most concentrated in the Tawi-Tawi province in the Sulu archipelago. The Badjao are traditionally boat-dwelling. They drop anchor wherever there is more fruitful fishing ground. Often mistakenly classed as a Muslim  group, they subscribe to a system of belief that links them significantly  to the sea.

            The Samal, on the other hand, which occupies the bigger island in Tawi-Tawi, is Muslims and are generally engaged in trade and agriculture. Both groups speak mutually intelligible language and carry on a symbiotic trading partnership. These varying orientation would spell a difference in both the technology and design concept in their respective mat making tradition.

            The most commonly used material is the pandanus plant which grows abundantly in the limestone-based island of  Tawi-Tawi. The pandanus grow wild and untended in the shores and sandy beaches. The techniques for preparing the pandan and weaving the mats are generally similar throughout Sulu. In 1962, an American Peace Corps volunteer named David Szanton and who had since then had become an anthropologist and is currently head of the International Programs at the University of California at Berkeley made a survey of the area and describe the process of mat making as follows:

            ” First, the thick pandan leaves are cut and center rib are removed. The two halves are separated then rolled in a coil, about one foot in diameter. Tied and held at the bottom of a pot by a rock, the coil is cooked by the boiling water, removing some of the color. The coil is then dried in the sun, opened and the leaves flattened with stick. They are  drawn through a small metal bladed tool, which cut each leaf into four or five narrow strips. Edge strips are discarded and are other are bundled loosely and left to bleach further in the sun before being resoaked in cold water for about 12 hours. By that time they have been sun-dried and softened with the stick once again, the natural color has almost completely faded and dying can begin. “

            The dyes used are chemical dyes. The colors used are greens, orange, red, violet, blue, yellow. After dyeing they are placed in shade to dry and again gently beaten to further soften  the material. These preparation usually takes about a week, while the weaving can take from two to five weeks.

            The mats are a woven by these two groups could be distinguish from each other by their design and use of colors. The small mats have four general patterns namely, 1) Stripes, 2) multi-colored square, 3) a checkered pattern of white and other colors and, 4) a zigzag pattern. The Samal mats are muted in colors and are softer to the touch. This is achieve by the repeated beating during the preparatory phase. The slightly glossy effect on the surface is achieved by diluting the dye with some coconut oil. These later techniques in the preparation is not done by the Badjao. As a result their mats are not as pliable and a bit stiff when newly woven.

            Among the Badjao exuberance of color used as well as highly spontaneous geometric and other stylized symbols set in apart from the Samal mats. The recurrent motifs that surface in the Badjao mat are in the form of stylized crab design, a series of wave-like or boat forms, patterns created by moving water, and some other marine life forms. The boldness stem from the use of colors that starkly contrast with the background.

            After finishing the weaving of the mat, another undyed plain mat is woven and is used to line the back of the main mat. The lining usually extends some two or three inches beyond the border of the main mat which is sewn securely to the backing. This gives it a framed look, and insures durability for the mat.

            There are a couple of islands in the Tawi-Tawi which are known for their mat making, The island of Laminusa produces mats commercially that are sold over the archipelago. The pliability and fineness in the weaving is what sets the Laminusa mats apart. These outstanding skills  have been recognized nationally  when one of the Laminusa weavers garnered the Manlilikha ng Bayan Award (National  Folk Artsist) in 1990.

            The other island known for its mat is Unggus Matata in the Tandubas island group. But the weavers in this island only make mats for themselves and do not sell them commercially. Visitors who had seen samples of Unggus Matata mats swear they are more superior than the Laminusa ones. But the inaccessibility of the islands does not make it easy to validate this claim. Judging from what is produced in Tawi-Tawi, the Philippines can claim to produce the handsomest mat in the whole of Asia, if not the world. The samples seen at the museum in Kuala Lumpur are also produced by the migrating Badjao who had settled not only in mainland Malaysia but in Easten Malaysia as well.

            Recent reports of extensive quantities of mats of unusual design surfacing in the markets in Kota Kinabalu in Sabah come from resident Badjao who had permanently taken up residence in Sabah. Some 10,000 Badjao who eluded marauding sea pirates in Sulu had quietly slipped out of the country and are found in the coastal areas of North Borneo. Their mobility could be attested by the fact that some Badjao are settled in the reclaimed area along Roxas Boulevard fronting Manila Bay.

Tausug Mat

The Tausug of Jolo have always been known for their weaving skills particularly of their silk sashes, shoulder cloth or their male head dress called pis siyabit. Some of the design in the textile are often transposed to woven mat since geometric design technically translate easily from the loom weaving to mat weaving. The design, again like the Samal, are characterized by linearity and geometry. The coastal settlements of Patikul and Maimbung are mat-making towns. Recent importation of machine-made rugs and carpets has replaced mats particularly inside the mosque. But just the same, the tradition is still very much alive.

Maranao Mat

The Mindanao Muslims which consist mainly of Maranao of Lanao and the Maguindanaon of Cotabato share a common tradition of mat making. These two groups, which geographically ajoin each other and speak a mutually intelligible language, nurture a sophisticated tradition of weaving not only in mats but in textiles, basketry and others woven containers as well. Mainly known for their colorful malong, the women also weave for household use. Most of these are generally used for sleeping but some plain looking ones are also woven and used to drypalay and other grains. Some extra large ones are donated for use to line the floor of the mosque.

            The material for the mat comes from sesed (Fimbristykis miliacea L.), a rush plant that grows in swampy areas in both Lanao and Cotabato.

            The basak area on the eastern side of Lake Lanao, which is well watered and where the sesed grows in abundance has led to the commercial marketing of this raw material. Neatly tight in bundles, the sesed could be bought at market stalls in the Marawi market. A similar phenomena is also noted in Cotabato. The flood plains of the Rio Grande also nurture an abundance of sesed.

            The sesed is harvested and cut into lengths of  about thirty inches long. They are dried under the sun for a day just to remove some of the water content but retaining its pliability. Overdying will make the sesedbrittle and break in the process of weaving. They are boiled in chemical dyes of green, maroon, yellow, and blue. The natural color of the sesed is also used for contrast.

            The most unique feature of the mat from this area is the round-shaped mat woven by the Maranao. It is not very clear whether the round-shaped mat, which is the only such shaped mat produced throughout the country,  is a recent development or has always been a traditional procedure. The shape may have been traditionally determined by other items in the material culture like the tabak or the round brass holder that serves as the low table used for eating or serving guests group people in the round.

            The round mat often features spiral forms stemming from the center. It also comes in a series of colored concentric forms with each subsequent color band bigger than the inner preceeding band. The square mats on the other hand generally feature irregular arrangements of geometric forms set off in different colors. There is hardly any correspondence in the motif found in the cloth as compared with those in the mats.

            The appearance of the woven carpets from the Middle East which coincide with the intensification of the Islamization process in southern Philippines, and characterized by massive groups of pilgrims to Mecca, had slowly eased out the mats particularly from the mosque, and more use of carpets is noted. It is, however, only in Lanao that this easing out the use of the traditional mat is observed.

Tboli of Highland Mindanao

            The Tboli people, viewed today, conveys the most relatively preserved material culture among the ethnic minorities in the country. In the late 1960’s, they convey a downhill trend in terms of preserving their culture. The cultural pressures from the larger society as well as the Christian missionary efforts in the area has worked towards the increasing obliteration of their traditional way of life. But a major transformation started to take place in the early ’70s which further intensified in the succeeding years. The major catalyst in the revitalization of the culture is the entry of the PANAMIN Foundation, which supported and greatly encouraged the revitalization of their culture by marketing traditional products from the area.

            As a result, a visit to Lake Sebu in Southern Cotabato on a market day finds one in the midst of a very well preserved culture with everybody garbed traditionally complete with personal adornment seldom seen among traditional people in the country today. In the outlying areas, little has changed through the years.

            The typical Tboli house has a raised dais section strictly used for sleeping. This area is generally lined with mats woven out of a locally grown reed. The reed closely resembles stripped bamboo, having a glossy outer covering which is generally resistant to dirt and fluid. The mats are generally uncolored and comes in its natural shade. But occasionally one comes across a few dyed mats. These mats are very durable. Knowing the orientation of the Tboli in protecting their traditional material culture, one could expect that the use of the mat in the area will persist for a long time.

Palawan Mat

The lush and extensive rainforest of Palawan Island that shelter the rattan vine still growing wild and in profusion makes it the perfect choice for the raw materials for the Palawan mat. The Tagbanua group which still write in a pre-Hispanic paleographic script, painstakingly align and piece together rattan strips to form their mats. The ends are carefully edged by closely weaving it with smaller rattan strips. The technology for making the Palawan mat make it the most durable of all the mats made in the country. A similar tradition is found among the Dyak people of  Sarawak in Borneo, as well as the Samal of Tawi-Tawi with the latter group using such a mat as a wall decoration rather than for sleeping.

Samar Mat

The Samar mat could indisputably claim to be the most extensively used in the country. One could find the Samar mat in the markets in Mindanao as well as in Luzon, not to mention the many islands of the Visayas. This popularity basically stems from its attractive colors as well as its highly affordable prices.

            The center of mat making in the province of Samar is the town of Basey, just across the San Juanico Bridge from Tacloban. The raw material is the tikog, a grass that grows profusely in swampy places. The process is very much similar to the Maranao and the limited color use make these two traditions resemble each other in color tones. But their design differ markedly.

            The Basey mat maker basically has a border design and a central motif which often is a stylized rendition of flowers such as sampaguita, gumamela, rose, or some orchid. Most of the time, the motif is always done in a contrasting color or just plain naturaltikog color. The more complicated ones come in multicolored tones and correspondingly cost more. Once in a while, a mat showing the excellent likeness of a major and highly recognizable public figure, whether local or foreign, would appear. One particular practitioner in the area do this “portrait mat” – a highly specia;ized artistic skill which is difficult to pass on down the younger generation.

            The technique for creating the design on the Basey mat could be termed as embroidery since the design is inserted after the basic plain background mat has been fully woven. The design therefore is superficial to the basic mat, just an overlay of contrasting color.

            While the designing on the Basey mat is generally conventional and one comes across a design repeatedly, one particular household in Basey has ventured into new design concepts inspired by suggestions made by outsiders. Although imitative and derivative in nature, it is a sign of a growing awareness of a more open approach in designing but still using the same technique as they have always done traditionally.

            The only other notable tradition in the Visayan area is the bamban mat of Iloilo. Made from the bambam reed, this otherwise less pliable mat compensates by having a natural slightly glossy finish. Always done in its natural color, the bamban mat is still extensively used throughout rural Iloilo.

Romblon Mat

The island of Romblon has a unique tradition of mat making notable for its highly delicate lace-like edges. These mats from the buri palm are used traditionally as the liner for the wedding dance performed by the newly married couple. During the dance, the couple’s respective relatives vie with each other on who can throw more coins to the couple or pin paper money on their clothes. The dance stops as  soon as the money throwing is finished.

            The doily-like mats are not ordinarily used. Aside from the wedding dance it is only used when one has very important guests.

            In Bolonao, Pangasinan the same buri material is used for mat making; a double-layered mat with one side using a plaid colored design while the reverse is kept plain.

            In the Bohol area, another species of palm that has a thicker leaf is used for mat making. The Bicolanos call it karagamoy. It comes in two shades: the natural straw color and a deep brown shade achieved by soaking the material for a number of days in sea water which makes it impervious to insect attacks.

Cordillera Mat

           The rono reed grows abundantly in the steep hillside of the mountains of the Cordilleras. It is used in many ways such as roofing materials, fencing material, and basketry. It is also used when lashed together as a sleeping mat to line the earthen floor in the traditional Bontoc or Ifugao house. The rono is a pencil-sized reed and most people would not find it comfortable to sleep on due to its uneveness. A softer material made of bark strips that are sewn in overlays would be prepared. But making the bark strips mat takes a long time. Sometimes it is used as a mat and sometimes it could be used as a blanket to protect one’s self from the highland chill

           The range of materials and design evident in the many traditions of mat making in the Philippines indicate the many adaptive approaches each culture has made relative to its environment. Each group has utilized materials that locally grow and is readily available. That they continue to use the same materials attest to the balance that they have achieved in dealing with their resources.

            In terms of design, the Sulu situation deserves some comments. It is generally known that among the three ethnic groups in Sulu, the Tausug occupies a preeminent position socially; the Badjao occupies the lowest status, while the Samal occupies a status somewhere in between the two groups. The Tausug has been known for its intricate weaving in silk traditionally. The Badjao and Samal do not weave on the loom but weave mats instead. Is it a case of  “cultural specialization” where a culture has to have a distinct material for its notable skills, and by extension, its sense of pride? One can only guess the answer.

           The lack and limited amount of documentary research materials in most of these traditions point  to an area of concern, which future researchers can focus on. This exploratory essay is hoped to stimulate interest in the subject.