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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Northwest Coast
Mat Creaser
Ivory & Abalone Shell, 5” Length, c.1860-1880
Whale Rattle

The small hand tool known as a mat creaser is a wonderful example of Northwest Coast functional artistry. Such a creaser is a completely utilitarian object, almost invariably decorated with some degree of representational design and/or sculpture.

This lightly embellished mat creaser features the head and tail of what is most likely a sea-bird, which may have been the owner’s guardian spirit. The bird’s head and neck reach out from the rounded body represented by the form of the creaser, and a small tail shape representing raised tail-feathers nestles on the rear of the tool.

The creaser is employed in the making of cattail or tule-reed mats, which were used as bedding and wind abatement within the grand cedar-plank houses of the southern coast, where such plants once grew abundantly in huge wetland tracts. Mats were also used to cover frames built of light wood members to create temporary shelters for traveling and fishing or other resource-harvesting camps. These served like portable tents with canvas covers, which in turn became available in the late nineteenth century and largely replaced the use of the indigenous reed mats.

Cattail stalk and tule-reed mats were not truly woven, but were essentially sewn together with a two-strand twine made from twisted cattail-leaf fibers. Extensive lengths of such twine were used in conjunction with a long wooden needle and the creaser. The long wooden needle would be used to pierce laterally through the laboriously gathered cattail stalks or tule reeds from side to side, sewing together large numbers of parallel reeds in this way.

The rows of stitches were usually about four inches apart, running horizontally through the reeds back and forth over the width of the mat. The creaser was used as each reed or row of stitching was pierced by the needle, and was run along the top of the needle to crease the reeds firmly over the needle’s top ridg