I was back of house at the Melbourne Museum, browsing their hidden Pasifika collection, when I first saw one of these. This is Samoan? I asked. Yes, came the reply… and apparently, when a group of Samoan community elders visited a few weeks earlier, they gasped and shed a few tears at the rare sight of this woven cultural treasure.

The one I saw then was reddish-brown, and they had another one that was smokey-grey, almost black. This white one (pictured) is at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, where it’s known as an ie sina.

Quick Samoan language lesson: Ie means sheet or a piece of fabric. Sina, in this case, is short for sinasinā, which refers to something being white. For example, ua sinasinā le ulu a le lo’omatua means the old lady’s hair is now white.

So ie sina obviously refers to the colour of this particular…mat. Thing. Sadly, none of the museum scholars is a hundred percent sure what this type of woven art is actually called, but it is believed that the white ones – ie sina – were used in marriage consummation ceremonies back in the day.

Mmmhmmmm.

We have no record or documentation to confirm any other uses of these.. let’s just call this an ie.

It looks like a shaggy sheepskin, yeah? It’s actually made from the bark of the fau, a plant related to the hibiscus. Check out how tight the weave is at the back. The shaggy part could have been teased out of the plant fibers, maybe?

I heard that a Samoan lady out here in Auckland is trying to recreate this ie, to figure out how it’s made, but is having no real luck. This art is not practiced anymore in Samoa – it died out a century or so ago, no one knows why. Our more common ʻie tōga (fine mats) take a lot of skill and time to create. Could these old, shaggy ie be even more complicated and time consuming to make?

In any case, the ie sina (or whatever else it might be called) give us a stunning glimpse back into the lives of our Samoan ancestors. I’m so grateful for the museums around the world who lovingly document and preserve our cultural treasures.

Do you know anything about this ie? Please share your knowledge in the comments below.