What you should know about the Dayak woven mats of Borneo

Did you know that mat weaving is one of the most ancient hand-woven arts of human civilisation?

Archaeologists believe that the earliest portable floor coverings were made as far back as 25,000 years ago.

Weaved straw called rushes, were the first form of mat found in Mesopotamia about 6,000 years ago.

Even during biblical times, woven mats were used as sleeping pads to provide a little bit of warmth from the cold earth floors of their homes.

Here in Borneo, the Dayak peoples are famously known for their plaitwork, including woven mats.

Depending on the different Dayak languages, mats have different names in their respective dialects such as tikai in Iban, berat in Kayan and krese’ in Bidayuh Sadong.

Today, the art of weaving mats in Borneo is a dying art.

First of all, the Dayak communities do not use woven mats as much as they used to unless there are special occasions such as the harvest festival.

Moreover, weaving was an activity performed in between farming work.

When it is raining and farmers, especially women can’t go out, they usually stay at home doing something productive such as weaving mats or baskets.

In the present with less Dayak people committed full-time to agriculture like their ancestors did, weaving has also become a less-widely practiced skill, coupled with the depletion of rattan in the wild.

Here are five things you should know about the Dayak woven mats of Borneo:

1.Dayak woven mats can come in different sizes and functions.

Generally, there are three functions of Dayak mats. They serve as sleeping mats, as floor coverings for guests to sit on, as well as to dry farm or jungle produce such as pepper.

Bernard Sellato in his 2012 paper ‘Rattan and Bamboo Handicrafts of the Kenyah’ here explained more about purposes of Dayak woven mats taking example from the Long Alango community in North Kalimantan.

“Pat uwai is used to sleep on or or to seat guests. According to size of the mat, the men prepare eight hundred to one thousand strands of split and sliced uwai seka (rattan) – but it is the women who do the plaiting. Half of the strands are dyed black. The strands are laid crosswise, all undyed strands placed at the bottom and all those dyed black on the top so that the motif is created in white against black. Motifs (kalong) are rather large such as kalong ela and kalong surat. The plaiting begins in the middle of the strands and of the mat and widens to both sides, until all the strands are used. Over two weeks of work are needed to complete this type of mat.

“The pat suloh (floor mat or tikar lampit), or varying size, is used for seating in the guest room. The rattan canes are not plaited but split in two, smoothed and neatly arranged in parallel. At intervals of 10 centimeters, thinner rattan strands are inserted in holes punched through the half canes with an awl, so as to string together the half-canes into a mat. The edges of the mat are locked with a 2/2 plaitwork. This simple mat takes a man about one week’s work.

“Maken uwai – a mat that is longer, wider and coarser than the pat uwai – is used for drying rice, mung beans, or coffee. From eight hundred to a thousand strands, made of 4 meter-long uwai samule canes split into four, are plaited in a 2/2 plait (belata) by six to eight women. Each plaiter begins with two sets of strands placed at right angles and the separate pieces of the various plaiters are connected until the total length is sufficient. The plaiting then spreads out to both sides, until only the tips of the strands remain, which are then folded back into the plaitwork to form the edges.”

2.In the olden days, mats were used to wrap dead bodies.

The use of woven mats was not restricted to the living.

Noel Denison in his book ‘Jotting made during a tour amongst the Land Dyaks of Upper Sarawak, Borneo during the year 1874’ had this explained about the Bidayuh from the Mount Sentah area.

“These Dyaks burn their dead of the higher class; the poor are wrapped in a mat and cast out in the jungle though always in the same spot, where also the corpses are burnt.”

Denison also once encountered a Bidayuh funeral procession during his visit to Mount Serambu.

“The sexton or peninuch carried the corpse (wrapped in what appeared a mat) on his back, bearing a flaming bamboo torch in his hand, and following him came a number of women clothed in white, with dishevelled hair, shrieking and crying.”

Meanwhile among the Kayan people in the olden days, mats were used to place the dead body before putting them into the coffin.

This is what James Brooke observed among the Kayans:

“When a man dies, his friends and relatives meet in the house, and take their usual seats around the room. The deceased is then brought in attired in his best clothes, with a cigar fixed in the mouth, and being placed on the mat in the same manner as he would have arranged himself when alive, his betel box by his side. The friends go through the forms of conversing with him, and offer him the best advice concerning his future proceedings, and then having feasted, the body is deposited in a large coffin.”

3.In some Dayak cultures, you needed to make an offering before weaving the mat.

The Dayak Ngaju of Kalimantan reportedly made one of the most attractive Dayak mats in Borneo.

According to Harry Wiriadinata in his paper ‘Amak Dare, An Ornamental Sleeping Mat of the Ngaju Dyak, Central Kalimantan’, the patterns on the their mats are in fact an expression of the Dayak Ngaju’s daily life.

Wiriadinata stated, “Their houses lie along the river bank, in front of the virgin forest. In the forest live some animals – deer, mouse deer, pig, birds, bears and clouded leopard, kinds of fruit trees used for their food, as well as and poisonous plants which are dangerous and harmful. There are also spirits which are invisible, but which influence the lives of the people. All of these aspects of daily life are expressed in the sleeping-mat.”

Explaining more about the ritual behind making the Dayak Ngaju’s mat, he stated, “The mat is called Amak dare (amak is a mat, dare is decorative). It is made of woven strips cut from the stems the sigi rattan (Calamus caesarius), some of which have been dyed black by lamp-black mixed with oil, and with others dyed red with ‘dragon’s blood obtained from the fruits of another rattan, Jerenang (Daenonorops draco). Before making this sleeping-mat, the weavers must take part in a ceremony to make an offering to the gods. They must offer the blood of a chicken if they are making a simple mat, or the blood of a pig and an offering of incense if they want to decorate the mat with figures of the gods.”

4.The motifs on Dayak mats can be both simple and complex.

1033px Sarawak three native Kalabit women. Photograph. Wellcome V0037427
Three Kelabit women sitting on a mat in an undated photo by Charles Hose. Copyright expired.

Speaking of the mat decorations, the patterns of Dayak mats can be as simple as checkerboard or a beautiful compositions of interlocking geometric patterns.

The ones with intricate patterns are normally for personal or ritual purposes while those with simple designs are typically used for drying produce.

Fascinatingly, Jonathan Fogel and Bernard Sellato in their paper ‘Decorated Mats of the Peoples of the Borneo Hinterland’ pointed out that mats with very similar pattern can be found in two different parts of Borneo despite the huge distance between the two communities.

The paper stated, “Mats with very similar patterns are found among the Iban of the northwest and the people of Sabah, two groups that had little interaction before the mid twentieth century. Whereas for complex patterns, diffusion would seem more likely, an alternative rationale could be that such patterns belong to an ancient common Bornean legacy that survived separately in diverse groups.”

5.The significance of laying out or rolling up the mat in Dayak culture.

In Iban culture specifically, the acts of spreading and rolling up the mat are symbolic.

Beranchau tikai (spreading the mats) signifies a symbolic opening ceremony for Gawai celebration.

In the meantime, ngiling tikai or rolling up the mat means the end of the festivity.

During Gawai Dayak, special mats are laid on the ruai (common corridor) of a longhouse for the celebration.

When the fun and festivities end, the woven mats are then rolled up and put away.

This symbolic act is still significant among the Ibans that they practice it outside the longhouse.

Nowadays, there are ‘ngiling tikai’ celebrations held in hotels whereby the people particularly the VIPs rolling up the mat just to mark the end of Gawai celebration.

Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight.

She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science.

She is currently obsessed with silent vlogs during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to her obsession, she started her Youtube channel of slient vlogs.

Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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