Oct 30, 2009

Silk Floor Mats from Thirunalveli - Pattamadai Paai

Silk mat/ Pattu paai / Pattamadai pAi (mat) is a beautifully crafted floor mat which reminds me of the afternoon naps at my grandma's house. Every tamil family would be familiar with the pattu paai and may have had one at home.

Apart from the regular weaves and patterns, Pattamadai paais are made to order for wedding ceremonies. The bride and the groom's names and the wedding date are woven in to the mat make the occasion memorable. This particular handicraft is original to Pattamaadai, a small village in Thirunalveli district of Tamil Naadu, and hence its name. It is also called Korai or Gorai paai as it is made of a special kind of grass called "Korai/Gorai".

Here is how the grass: Korai looks like when harvested.

Image Courtesy:ropeinternational.com
The Weaving ...

The process of mat weaving is time consuming and painstaking. The art and craft of weaving and blending intricate designs of Pattamadai mats are considered unique to this region. "Korai' grass grows in swampy lands and riverbeds. Online research mentions a specific set of Labbai/Lubbai and Rauther Muslim families are involved in weaving these mats or making the loom. According a research submitted at a seminar in New Delhi -by Ms Soumhya Venkatesan in 2003, this household cottage industry contributes to over 75% of the local income in Pattamadai.

Processing the Korai grass...
Conventional method of mat making involves lengthy processes of drying, soaking, splitting and dyeing the grass. The harvest season fall during the months of September/ October and February/March . The grass  is cut while it is still green. Strips of grass are sun-dried and are not to exposed to humidity as they tend to turn black with the exposure. As the dried grass strips turn a yellowish green, they are boiled in a pot of water and then dried again. Bundles of  dried grass are then soaked in running water and kept below the surface of the water for three to seven days. This process makes the grass to swell up to three times its original size. After it is then dried again and then taken to a floor loom.  Finally a woven mat is dried in the sun for a short time before being polished.

There are three different categories of the silk mat available in the market and the classification depends on the weave: Coarse weave, medium and the fine weave. The outer skins of the grass is stripped to bring out the fine strand from within for weaving the finer variety.

The loom which consists of a warp supported by the mukali (means a tripod - in tamil )(a bamboo tripod). The weft of korai strands is inserted in the needle and made to pass over and under the warp of starched cotton threads according to the design, very similar to the process of weaving fabric. Water is used to soften the grass throughout the process.

In the picture below, you can see the supportive mukali and the mat (a work-in-progress) on the floor.

The loom:

Image courtesy: sadashivan.com

Traditionally, woven on hand-looms, these mats are now mass produced on power looms to meet domestic and international demand.These beautiful mats are weaved using cotton or silk in the weft. Predominant use of silk (pattu) thread for weaving gave it its other name - Silk mat or pattu paai. Use of silk thread gives a royal sheen and definite appeal to the mat. Look at the beautiful custom silk border in this mat!...drool...

Image courtesy: shalinicrafts

Motifs and patterns...

Traditional colours include rich "Indian" colours : black , brown and red as these are the colours derived from sappan tree.  Dyed grass strands are woven into bold stripe patterns with a thick set of streaks on both ends to make conventional looking mats. Beautiful traditional motifs and designs bring out the luxurious look of these mats. I prefer the natural scent of these mats to the stinky plastic odor any day!

Over the years, traditional designs are giving way to contemporary patterns, designs and custom motifs.Traditional colours have been replaced by use of synthetic dyes which provide a wider colour choice (I am in favour of natural dyes).These paais are ideal for hot and humid climates and most importantly are eco-friendly (with natural dyes), a major selling point for people like me. Buyers may choose their own set of details to be spun into the paai to suit any occasion or ceremony.

There has been an increase in demand for other korai grass products such as shopping bags, placemats, table runners, small office folders etc. How about a few decorative pillows?...

Image courtesy: cultural elements.com
Industry Overview...

The mat industry has gone through a cycle of transition from being most coveted to the most ignored and then back in demand. Efforts by a few organizations to promote this handicraft led to an influx of commercial interests. This cycle doesn't benefit any craft/art form, and the same applies to the Pattamadai mats industry as well.

Commercial weaving led to increased use of pure cotton and nylon threads instead of silk thread. Over the years, excessive exploitation and stress for over production resulted to waning in use of traditional methods. As I have always maintained, over production and apparent, in flow of money in the short term doesn't translate to "growth".

Increased domestic and international Demand and supply imbalance eventually led to increased use of synthetic dyes, shorter product life cycles, and lesser focus on long term benefits for the weaver and the industry as a whole. I remember members of my family discussing a drastic fall in quality of mats produced. With plastic mats making a foray into the market, silk mat industry lost its foot hold and its patrons among Indian buyers. My research led me to this video(in tamil) highlighting the current state of affairs in the Pattamadai pattu paai industry in general.

Video courtesy: spike.com

Issues with synthetic dyes...

It is common knowledge that natural dyes and product are more eco-friendly and do not impact a weaver's health and the community/environment they live in. Human tendency, in general, is to put long term gains on the back burner for minimal short term benefit. What pains me is emphasis on shot term benefit despite its negative long term impacts on all the Earthlings. Sappan plants were originally used as colouring agents and grown for their natural red dye. Botanical name for this tree being, Caesalpinia sappan.

Image courtesy: blog: thoughtstoliveby

Market dictat and the extinction of this species of trees led to increased use of synthetic dyes. Sappan has been categorized under endangered species category by World Conservation Monitoring Center (1998). Caesalpinia sappan. 2006. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN 2006. Another article in The Hindu mentioned a research program dedicated to reviving this tree species and the effort a few organizations were putting in to promote traditional practices.

One thing disheartening about any industry in India is their tendency to concentrate on the export market. Agreed that international market contributes to a major chunk of their revenue, but spending potential of the Indian middle class needs to be given its due credit.

The Silver Lining...

Off late, eco-conservationist organizations have taken interest in this matter and according to a few news articles, a few of these production houses are reverting back to traditional methods of dyeing and processing of the Korai grass. This article in The Hindu, Dec 2005 mentions efforts by an organization in promoting use of natural dyes and motivating weavers to get back to using Sappan. Free saplings were distributed during the workshop.

More such workshops and educational seminars later, I hope to see more number of weavers adapting traditional dying methods and understanding the pros of using eco-friendly methods and techniques.

Paai : The one I bought....
I wanted one such paai for my wedding. However, we used a brand new plastic paai ! (frown) for the ceremonies as we couldn't source a pattu paai on time. Thanks to my amma, I have one now. She bought it as a wedding (sixth) anniversary gift this diwali. It is now being used to seat guests during vetthalai paaku  other festive ceremonies at home. I simply love the feel of this paai. A plastic one can never match the chic a pattu paai adds to your decor. Mine is a simple one and sans any personalization. I preferred a very traditional design with strong earth tones. Here is a picture of my paai.....take care.


  1. hi sudha,went through all three of ur blogs.good writing and tasty recipes.good work,continue.Loved the mat,i think even i will buy one when i come down south.and loved the brumpy rocker.

  2. hey Lakshmi
    Thank you for the visit and the comment...do stop by whenever possible


  3. hi
    I went through your blog.It's really interesting to know in detail how the weaving is done. Good work, and continue your work about traditional things which was once in use in our daily life which we miss now.
    God bless you.

  4. hi amma,

    thank you for the comment and the morale boost!...I will do my best in writing about traditional art and crafts from India. Pl keep posting your comments on my work.


  5. Sudha,

    An interesting and very nostalgic article on Pattamadai Paai! Although I never worked with the weavers there directly but has spent a number of years in the region doing research as an ecologist (not too far from there) in Mundanthurai. I got to know several of the weavers and sellers there and saw the changes in their weaving style and market demand from early 1990 till mid 2000. These mats are still woven by Muslim women in their houses. In the 80s there was a cooperative to make and sell these paais. But that fell apart in the 90s. One of the paai makers and sellers (Peer Muhammad, I think) who owns a shop right next to the Pattamadai bus stop once told me they used to make only traditional pattu paais and some of the simple paais for every day use. He used to go to Calcutta and sell them on the street. He also lived in Medinipur district of West Bengal and learnt some techniques of mat weaving there. For commercial and ecological reasons they do not use any more natural dyes but use pretty strong synthetic chemical dyes. I was surprised to see Pattamadai paai placemats in World Market store here in the US. Of course, felt very happy at the same time.

    I used to take my friends and family members to Pattamadai for tours and to buy mats and mat products. I have several of the mats from there. But never bought one pattu paai! In the mid 1990s one fo the pattu pais used to be 1500 rupees. in mid 2000 they used to cost 3000 or so. I wonder how much do they cost now!

    Here is a link of my wall hanging at our home in the US...


  6. Hi Kaberi
    thank you so much for the wonderful insight...really appreciate your thgt...hope you will keep stopping by often to share your thgts.

  7. I remember the trips I made when I was a kid to Pattamadai. I am sure it is Tamirabarani's water that makes those wonderful paais.The paais would be cool in summer and feel warm in winter!

  8. Nice writeup, one doesn't realize the time and effort that goes into these beautiful handmade products till you read about them. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Can you please let me know where can I buy these pattu pai? Are there any shops in Chennai where I can buy these?


    1. mine is from R-street in chennai. do check the small shops and ask around.

  10. very useful information. helped my project a lot. thank you mam

  11. Dear Madam,
    Kindly provide exact locations where Pattu Paais are available. I am from Mumbai and will be visiting Chennai for a couple of days towards the end of this month.
    Thanks and regards,


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