As pictures are worth a thousand words I will start with images, all of which inspired my research into this unique element of Pacific Northwest ethnobotany. You will see that mats are present throughout these images, yet, at the time I was beginning my research into the cultural history here, there was very little mention of them, perhaps a caption might mention mats, perhaps even ‘cattail mats’. And yet, they showed up everywhere- as seating, flooring, mattresses, insulation, storage, insulation on plankhouse walls, and as sheathing for the summer houses. (upper photograph by Edward Curtis: Lower painting by Paul Kane, Stark Museum of Art, Orange, Texas)
They are made from the cattail plant Typhus latifolia, also called ‘ulal’ by the coast Salish, common in our wetlands, and called bulrush in other parts of the world. In my Scottish/Irish ancestry we also used them to make mats, thickly braided and sewn, as well as for baskets as they were also used here. It’s a great plant for many things including wildlife habitat, yet shunned in most wetland restoration projects as ‘invasive’ to my chagrin (don’t get me started!).
I found these mats in the museums, and then began noticing the tools for them, the long wooden cattail mat needles, the highly carved cattail mat creasers. This was the mid-90’s, did we even have google then? If so I wasn’t using it yet, and I’m not sure what I would have found, this information is so obscure and even now, incorrect. Instead I went to the books and museums, and eventually to the people who are still making them.
It was a three year process to make my first mat, figuring out how and when to harvest the cattail leaves, how to dry them and store them to avoid mold, deciding what to make my first fiber cordage from, how to make a wooden mat needle, and which is the best wood, how to use a creaser, how to sew it without tearing the leaves, how to properly bind them, and eventually how to use them. I was gifted with knowledge from ancestors in photos, and finally the upper and lower binding details directly from Fran James (Lummi) who along with her son Bill made cattail mats for the Burke Museum, which were also teachers for me.
These are primarily sewn mats, not twined or plaited. This is a technique unique to Cascadia. I learned that tule mats made from hardstem bulrush of the Plateau region are also sewn, in much the same manner. I only recently learned while working with the Klamath Tribe (who used three types of rush mats for their housing- sewn, twined, and bundled) that a primary reason for using sewn mats on the exterior of a house is to shed rain easily. The ones used for seating and mattresses were often doubled-walled for added thickness. I’ve seen some fine examples of these, most recently at Karshner Museum in Puyallup, where I consulted on designing an in-depth program for school classes which includes each student making cattail mats.
I have been able to share my experiences and this knowledge back into tribal communities for many years now, where it belongs. (photo is of a workshop on cattails at Northwest Indian College making small mats). I also offer cattail mat kits to schools, museums and educators, which I developed after many years of going into the schools to teach it myself. I’ve even made a few models for education kits used in parks and museums over the years.
This year I’m offering my first classes in making full-size mats to the public. I know only a few people will be interested, but I hope to help keep this knowledge alive in this sharing and to build appreciation for this skill and for the plant themselves. Those who take the class can take this back to their communities- harvesting the cattails, improvising for needles, making your own cordage or using commercially available fiber cordage.
This photo shows a student at Bastyr University on her finished research project for our Northwest Herbs class, which she plans to use for her morning stretches.