Making mats in Pukapuka

Sunday March 24, 2013 Written by Published in Return to Pukapuka

Dr Amelia Hokule’a Borofsky, who grew up in Pukapuka and Hawai’i, has returned to her childhood atoll to learn, teach and write.

She holds her doctorate in community and cross-cultural psychology. She is a regular contributor to CI News and the Atlantic Magazine online.

The women of Pukapuka regularly weave mats, hats and fans, primarily as gifts.

When respected visitors, contract workers or Pukapukans leave the atoll they will often receive these gifts. Mats also get given as gifts to cover the deceased, for newborns, and for individual home use. Mats may be sold as a fundraiser, but mostly mats and hats become precious gifts for those departing.

This week in Pukapuka Loto and Ngake village women have been busy weaving two mats each as gifts for the Teopenga and Vailoa family who will be leaving Pukapuka to study at Takamoa Theological College. Like most things in Pukapuka, everything has a season, and right now is the season for making mats.

Making a hand-woven mat requires a lot of work. The prickly pandanus leaves first need to be cut from the trees on the motu. Pau Manulele, a master weaver and teacher for the Life Skills weaving class at Niua School said, “we put the leaves on the fire to make them light brown and then lay them out in the sun to dry.” Once dried, the pandanus gets beaten, rolled up and saved. When it is time to unroll, the leaves need straightening and then get cut in thin strips for weaving.

Making a mat is a communal affair with five to ten women working all together on the same mat over the course of a week. Each woman takes turns and the women not weaving provide the food. Colorful designs get woven into the mat. “You learn the design from your mother,” said Manulele who recalls as a small child climbing all over her mother’s mat and helping her weave from the age of three. Today, the women most often use blue, black or pink plastic ribbon to add color and make their design although darker pandanus leaves may also be used. “Pukapukan mats are the best,” said Manulele, “they have that softness and light color.”

Most of the younger girls know how to weave fans, make brooms and even weave the mats. Only some of the girls know how to make the hats, which involve a great deal of skill and patience. They too learn from watching their mothers, and from their Life Skills class.

Every time I try to weave I get hopelessly mixed up and so I sit on the side and observe the nimble figures and the ease with which the women patiently and meditatively weave.

To keep Pukapukan craft-making arts going for the younger generation, many have expressed interest in making it profitable. Crafts from the Northern Group would likely do well on the Rarotonga market.

A business model and transport, however, would have to be worked out. Anyone patient enough to wait out the transport would receive a beautiful communally hand-woven soft Pukapukan mat.

If you’re lucky, mats, hats, brooms, fans, baskets, canoes, kumete (wooden bowls) and other Pukapukan handicrafts may be purchased through the mayor’s office and island council by calling 6841034.

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