“The Mat-Maker” begins with one of those dreamy moments where the monotony of daily routine aboard the Pequod gives Ishmael an opportunity for philosophical contemplation. There is a sense of foreboding in the air, as if this lull were simply the prelude to something else.
Ishmael and Queequeg are engaged in weaving a sword-mat, which will be used to provide some extra padding in their whaleboat. Here is Ishmael description of their chore:
I was the attendant or page of Queequeg, while busy at the mat. As I kept passing and repassing the filling or woof of marline between the long yarns of the warp, using my own hand for the shuttle, and as Queequeg, standing sideways, ever and anon slid his heavy oaken sword between the threads, and idly looking off upon the water, carelessly and unthinkingly drove home every yarn …
To understand Ishmael’s description, we need to remember that the “warp” are the “longitudinal” threads in weaving, usually affixed to to two bars. The “filling or woof” is passed at a right angle through every other strand of warp, thus creating a weave. The “shuttle” is a piece of wood around which the yarn or string of the filling is wound and from which it is dispensed as it is woven into into the “warp.” The “sword,” which gives this kind of mat its name, is then used to push the strings of the filling close together. The illustrations below are taken from the Text-Book of Seamanship (1891) by Commodore S. B. Luce of the U.S. Navy (available online here):
Here is the text that accompanies them:
At a distance apart, equal to the length of the mat, sling a couple of bars in a horizontal position. Hitch one end of the warp to the bar at the end on which you intend to terminate the mat; take up the comb, which is made of a wood perforated with holes and slits alternately, Fig. 185, reeve the other end through the first hole, over and under the bar at which you intend to begin, back through the first slit, under and over the other bar; and so wind off as many parts as are required for the breadth of the mat, the last turn being rove through a slit, and secured to the bar at which you finish off, Fig. 186. This done, lift the loom up, middle the filling, and lay it