For hundreds of years, mats of various sizes have been used for eating, sitting and sleeping.Â Today it is mostly the large sleeping mat, the icansi, which is used for sleeping, sitting and ceremonial purposes.Â Beautifully embroidered mats are prized presents at gift exchanging ceremonies between the families of a bride and groom.
A mat of this quality would be slashed in half and dropped into the grave at a funeral.Â This custom probably arose from disposing of the personal sleeping mat of the deceased.
A mat making frame is a wide but short A-frame, which has to be strung with warp threads of strong cotton string before the reed or sedge can be introduced.Â The warp threads are weighted at the back of the frame with old torch batteries, jars of petroleum jelly or similar heavy items to keep them taut.
The preferred material for mat making is a fine reed called ncema (juncus krausii).Â It grows in protected wetland areas and can only be cut every two years in order to protect the supply.Â The cutting is done by hand with a sickle in order to protect the plant roots.
An inferior material is ikhwani, a soft sedge that is more plentiful and therefore used quite often when the stronger ncema is not available.Â The ongoing popularity of mat making has created an economic opportunity for the harvesters, who sell large bundles of reeds and sedges at markets such as the monthly Mona Market outside Nongoma.
Contemporary decorative mats, usually for the tourist trade, are made from plaited grass and plastic bags.Â Ncema grass is sometimes covered with chip and sweet packets to give a festive sparkle to sale items.
Floor mats are made from available grass that has been plaited into a rope and this in turn has been stitched into a circle or oval.Â A well-made mat is surprisingly sturdy and can stand some years of foot traffic.
The small isicephu or sitting mat is not used as often as in the past, and the square isithebe or eating mat is seldom seen at all.Â The museum has an example of a beautifully embroidered Shembe prayer mat.Â Followers of the prophet Isiah Shembe meet in open air temples and mats are used to show respect.
This same respect is shown at all traditional ceremonies, where it is the custom to arrive with your mat rolled under your arm.Â The custom of always sitting on a mat has probably continued as a matter of convenience, although older women have indicated that it is a measure of respect for the ancestors, who are buried in the ground below.