Weaving voivoi mats is a traditional craft in Fiji and should you ever buy one, consider the many, many hours spent in their making. The actual weaving is the shortest part of the process.
First the women gather the pandanus leaves, going out into the countryside to gather these long, sharp blade-like leaves. Then they boil them. Then they lay them out to dry in the sun (and quickly take them back inside if there’s a rain storm). Then they smooth out the long wrinkled leaves by pulling them back and forth over a metal rod or file. Now they are ready to cut them into thin strips and finally they can begin weaving.
Catriona and I worked out that it must take approximately 30 – 40 hours to make a 3m x 2m mat. She and I spent a fascinating 2 hours with 3 local women – Killara, Ella and Kata – watching and learning how to weave the mats.
Catriona had a particular interest in the voivoi mats as she is herself a fibre sculptor. Used to the art and craft of weaving, she was able to pick up the technique quickly – the rigorous sequence of bending one back, folding one forward, slipping one through….over and over. The intricacies of starting and finishing were something we never quite mastered, but Catriona managed to just about complete a small mat during our time with Ella finishing it off for her. I say ‘we’ but in actual fact I never tried: I just took the photos and chatted!
It’s very much women’s business, sitting around sociably and weaving together. Ella recounted tales of her mother teaching her the craft when she was about 16 – and unpicking an afternoon’s efforts because they weren’t good enough.
Voivoi mats are used extensively in Fiji – enter just about any Fijian village house and you’ll find the floor covered with three or four mats. They sell in the market in Savusavu for anything from F$80 to F$200 depending on size – and when you appreciate the time and skill involved you realise that they are very good value.