Mats, weavings of natural cane / reed, are part of the Tunisian landscape. Called "hssir" in the dialectal language, they are used in particular to cover floors and walls, decorate, sit, lie down...
Mat - © Chwaya
Previously, the mats adorned the walls of the courtyards of traditional houses. Today, they are still found in the form of carpets on the floors of mosques or on the walls of cafes, as evidenced by the famous "Café des nattes" of Sidi Bou Saïd. They are also used to make baskets, furniture, and everyday objects.
The "Café des Nattes" (Cafe of the Mats) in Sidi Bou Saïd - © Chwaya
Handcrafed mats are made in various regions of Tunisia, especially in the city of Nabeul. In Nabeul, this very old craft activity was carried out by farmers during their free time. It was not until the 1960s that it became a profession, which is today recognized by the Tunisian National Crafts Office.
The mat makers' street of Nabeul was once very lively. It had about forty mat makers in the 1960s. Today, only two remain. Those who still practice this profession do it mainly out of passion because the job requires patience and thoroughness for a low income.
The craft is learned from father to son from the age of 8, during school holidays. The children first learn to classify the cane threads, to make small mats like placemats, then to write small texts on them.
Mat maker from Nabeul
The reed stalks preparation is done during the summer for the year. The first step is to harvest the reed from the river and then let it dry in the sun for at least two months between June and August. Once dry, the reed is stored for three months before use so that it becomes softer and easier to handle. The reed is then dipped in water and ready to use.
Craft methods have not changed. The mats are woven on a horizontal loom. Looms are generally no more than 80cm wide due to the size of the stem. However, if larger mats are desired, two men work simultaneously side by side on a larger loom, crossing several reed stalks. Twelve hours of work are needed to make 3 meters of mats.
Large mat made by two men
The natural color of the reed is straw yellow. The shades traditionally used are green, red and violet (color called black olive by mat makers). The patterns made on the mats are simple and inspired by everyday life. However, mat makers innovate more and more with the help of Fine Arts students who present them with new ideas of patterns and objects: curtains, upholstered seats, tables...
Today, most of the mat production goes to mosques. Mat makers receive many requests from abroad, especially from Algeria, but there are not enough craftsmen to honor them. Are we witnessing the last generation of mat makers?