Exquisite and intricate

Crafty tales

Exquisite and intricate

 Wonder mat: ‘Pattamadai’ mats from Tamil Nadu These famous korai grass mats have been part of popular culture for a long time but entered the modern Indian handicraft scene only in 1953 and the reason is interesting. The Pattamadai mat weavers wanted publicity to capture the  international market for these mats and one of the local supporters in 1952 gifted an elaborately designed mat as a coronation gift to Queen Elizabeth.

This mat, publicly displayed along with other coronation gifts, came to the notice of the All India Handicrafts Board and brought  the then doyen of the industry, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya to Pattamadai. She with her foresight encouraged the weavers to form a handicrafts cooperative society. The gift to the British Queen is now displayed as a wall hanging in her residence the Buckingham Palace in London.The smoothness of the mats depends on, how finely the korai grass, which is grown on river shores in the Tirunelveli district of  Tamilnadu, is split.

For the finest variety, the reed is split into nearly a 100 pieces. It is then soaked in the running water of the river for three to seven days, after which the grass strips are kept in a water dye solution. Then the mats are woven on a loom with a cotton  wrap and the creative process begins. While the medium pattamadai has less count and is woven with cotton  thread in the weft, the superfine pattamadai mats uses  silk pattu) thread for weaving, which  gave it its other name — silk mat or pattu paai. Use of silk thread gives a royal sheen and definite appeal to the mat.

Traditionally, woven on hand-looms, these mats are now mass produced on power looms to meet domestic and international demand.

So exquisitely fine is the weave of these mats, that a mat of of 140 count size and three feet by eight feet expanse can be slipped into a pocket folded like a handkerchief. The wondrously textured and woven mat is a tribute to the weaver’s impeccable skills. The pattamadai mat is mostly woven by muslim women and there is an innate sense of harmony in creating beautiful decorative-functional objects out of something as humble as a reed. The weavers are able to weave not more than six inches per day of this fine variety. A 100 count pattamadai mat takes a fortnight to be ready.

The 120 and 140 count mats take even more time and cost more. A standard three feet by eight feet mat in the 100 count range, will cost about Rs 1500 and in the 120 count range, will cost Rs 3500. A mat in the 140 count range will cost Rs 5000 if bought from the weavers cooperative. Both medium count and superfine pattamadai mats were traditionally designed with a natural “gold” textured body offset by blue and red stripes and carried woven imprints of the owner’s  name  as well as numerals.  Today, the pattamadai mats on display  come in dazzling range in colours from deep blues and reds to ivory and beige.  Contemporary design inputs have created stunning new imagery.
While the medium range mats are woven with traditional designs, the silk mats are brilliant  designer  pieces, sporting minimally elegant  stripes on the melting ivory texture of the finely woven mat. Apart from six feet by four feet mats, there are smaller size wall hanging mats, prayer mats. Of late, spurred by the interest yoga has created in the West, the Pattamadai weavers are specialising in yoga mats. 

Though the weavers used the natural dye extracted from the plant, Sappan (Caesalpinia sappan) till some decades ago, the herb vanished due to excessive exploitation, forcing them to switch over to cheap and bright synthetic dyes. But due to the environment problems, the organic dyes have come back in the lime light and of course mean cost more to the buyer.

Over the years, traditional designs are giving way to contemporary patterns, designs and custom motifs. In recent years, local craftsmen such as National Award winner, AS Peer Muhammad have been making not only just simple mats for sleeping but also wall hangings, table mats, runners etc. For the Middle East market  a great number of mats are woven with Islamic motifs.

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