The standard Iban mat is made of bemban, a white-flowering reed of the arrowroot family (Donax spp) that grows in swampy places. The village women tend the plants, and allocate appropriate harvesting rights to the mat-makers. Suitable lengths are cut, then the shiny outer skin is stripped off; this is the working material.

Unlike rattan, bemban is harvested by the women themselves. Bemban, like most mat-making materials, must be harvested during the new moon. There appears to be a scientific basis for this ‘superstition’ – the plants contain less sap at this time, so they will dry better, and be less susceptible to fungus and insect attack when they are stored later. The bark strips are carefully trimmed to equal width; a well made mat is of a tight, even texture. Craftworkers distinguish between the ‘bemban ai’, which is generally used for making mats, and the somewhat more rigid ‘bemban batu’ which can also be used to make small baskets, and the characteristic patterned sun hat called ‘tangoi lelambak’.

The term ‘mat-weaving’ is sometimes used. Some researchers are uncomfortable with this – weaving requires the use of a loom or frame. ‘Plaiting’ seems a better description of the work that turns out mats and baskets; it is done with semi-rigid strips, free-hand. A related technique, braiding, produces a long strip or string of interlaced fibres. In the Sarawak context braids are used mainly for straps, loops and sometimes edges.

Iban mats are worked on the bias, from the ‘foot’ of the object towards the ‘top’. The most commonly used technique is twill or anyam dua, two strands crossed diagonally. Variations in this ‘two-over two- under’ produce intricate self-coloured patterns which appear best in oblique light. To strengthen the edge, the twill is transposed to form one or several ‘frames’ which may be interlaid with wavy designs. The hallmark of a well-wrought mat are straight edges and accurately right-angled corners.

The original use for these mats was, as the name ‘sleeping mat’ suggests, for resting. Clean mats were spread on the floor to welcome visitors; most families have a stock of very large mats for major gatherings, too.

Since the 1960s, the foam rubber mattress has all but replaced the humble sleeping mat, thought some people find a bemban mat placed on top of the mattress more comfortable than a cotton sheet. Much of today’s mat output is not used for sleeping, but for further processing into a variety of novelty products. Young designers are getting into the act; sheets of finely patterned mat fabric are incorporated in bags, briefcases, writing pad and other book covers, chair cushions, folding screens – the list goes on. Small mats of matching patterns are marketed as table mats, often teamed with a longer ‘runner’ for the center of a dinner table.

Sleeping mats are one fine example of how a traditional craft, although almost obsolete in its original function, can and will survive if it is adapted to contemporary use and tastes.

Heidi Munan,

previously published in CRAFTS Issue 2, January-March 2008, 

Issue can be download at Crafthub website

Permission granted to reproduce for personal use only.
Commercial use is prohibited


Related post

Craft Sarawak- mats of Sarawak by Heidi Munan