The palm tree rattan is probably one of the most famously known plants in the Philippines, with its use spanning not just for baskets but also for furniture, hats, and bags.
When Pottery Barn, an international furniture shop, features a winnowing tray as a centerpiece, (yes, that bilâo which costs a whopping 15,000 pesos) it shows how local materials are seen as resourceful organic art in other parts of the world. Imagine how something utilitarian in the lives of the Filipinos can be treated as art, hung on the wall, and displayed to be admired.
But that is precisely what is happening, now that their use has relatively dwindled in our everyday lives. How often do the people who buy their rice in the giant supermarkets actually use the bilâo? When was the last time we’ve actually used one? Do we even have the skills to make these baskets?
In many ways, these organic materials have become a craft that showcases a cultural practice long past (just a friendly reminder that the 1980s was 40 years ago!). These wickers are still around, woven by master craftspeople whose knowledge and skills are being replaced by other common materials, primarily plastics. In this case, what was once an essential skill to survive has changed to become marketable artistic products. And like any craftspeople, basic knowledge of their materials—in this case, their environment and the plants they bear—is fundamental to their knowledge. Like anything that takes time, plants and people are entwined to produce skills and knowledge that is passed down through generations.
The palm tree rattan is probably one of the most famously known plants in the Philippines, with its use spanning not just for baskets but also for furniture, hats, and bags. Rattan comes in many different forms, some of them growing as woody vines, while others are hardier and may look like canes, although generally still flexible. The Philippines has almost 70 species of rattan, with 4 of its genera widely utilized: the Calamus, Demonorops, Korthalsia, and Korthalsia. Because of the variety of species, the Philippines is one of the biggest suppliers of furniture and basket making in the world. As early as 1914, some studies have shown that the Philippines export baskets to the United States as part of a growing demand, and that demand has only grown at the onset of globalization.
Basketmakers are the ones who collect rattan in the forest, and often the initial method of processing is carried on there. Hanna Szczepanowska, a materials conservationist who studied Southeast Asian rattan art pieces and their preservation, mentioned that rattan is commonly green when it is initially harvested. When they are stripped, a practice done while still in the practice, the harvesters are also stripping the outer layer that contains silica, which may reveal the brownish color of the cane. Once all the canes are stripped, they are then gathered to be further processed.
Due to the flexibility of rattan despite its hardy nature, a complete one may be used as the pole for the basket. These are rigid enough to hold their form when shaping the basket’s initial outline. The rest of the rattan can further be cut on its cross-section to produce a thinner strip of the material. These are called the split rattan and are the main source of wicker or the body of the basket. These are woven through the harder outside parts of the basket’s body. In making the baskets, the craftspeople have an inherent understanding of plant materials and their characteristics in order to make them, which they then apply to the type of baskets that they imagine to make.
Szczepanowska also mentioned that the harder rattan part can be used as poles for the basket, which provides the spine of the basket. The split-rattan, cut on its cross-section to produce a thinner strip of the material, is used as a source for wicker. While a rattan might be green when it is initially harvested, stripping the outer layer that contains the silica may reveal its brownish color. It is commonly thought that the browning color over time is a fungal infection and sought to correct it. In some cases, the craftspeople may find this discoloration unsettling, but Szczepanowska also mentions that this is part of the rattan’s aging. This is a result of the initial stripping process which crystallized the outside layer, leading to its acting as a barrier to rot. Blackening of the rattan, then, is indicative of its age and not of possible fungal issues.
As it is a sturdy product, it is perhaps not surprising that names for the sizes of rattan splits are present in peoples’ vocabulary. According to a Pabuyaon, Rivera, and Espanto’s work released in the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR, 1998), the split size diameters are called “bakirin” (1/2 inch), “balabala” (1/4 inch) and “sulihiya/laylay” (1/8 inch). The sizes of these rattan splits can help the basket makers plan the weft of their designed baskets.
Rattan is very abundant in the rainforest. A 16th-century trade boat found in Zambales analyzed by archaeologists found that the ropes used for tying the parts of the boat together were rattan. The San Isidro shipwreck shows that ancient people already knew that rattan had anti-rotting properties which made it the perfect organic material to use in boats. Fay-Cooper Cole, a prominent anthropologist who documented several indigenous groups in the Philippines, mentioned that the Tingguian (Itneg) men who produced the traveling packs called pasiking and lagpi commonly used rattan alongside other woody materials since these baskets are less prone to rotting when in contact with water.
With this innate knowledge of the plant properties, it is clear that communities who commonly utilize the rattan definitely take advantage of its sturdy qualities. This practice was likely passed down through hundreds of generations due to its abundant availability in the forest. However, with the dwindling tree covers that allow rattan to grow wild, their sources continuously lessen. Many indigenous communities are left struggling to cope with the decreasing supply and have become increasingly resourceful in ensuring that these plants will survive. This led to some groups adapting to various needs of the forest to ensure the continued growth of rattan, an essential plant to their survival. One way the Batak people of Palawan adapted is to ensure that these vines are protected when they practice swidden farming or kaingin. In doing so, they can guarantee that there will still be rattan left for their needs. Perhaps, however, the question that we are then left to ask is, how long until the land runs out?
Knowing the hundreds of varieties of baskets throughout the Philippines helps us appreciate the skills and scientific knowledge of the people, honed primarily by their observation and practice. Aside from being tradespeople dedicated to their craft, they are true scientists by weaving information on flora and applying them to an end product. This skill is particularly honed by continuous practice and experience perfected with the help of generational knowledge passed down through centuries. Baskets produced by these experts show how they critically entwine the discipline of understanding plant anatomy and characteristics to produce beautiful and soothing art. Basket art not only deserves to be placed on a wall to be admired, but art that is used and relevant to our culture, identity, and daily lives.
Blake-Hedges, J. 2015 . “Rattan Basketry and Furniture Work in the Zamboanga Trade Schoo”l. In The Philippine Craftsman, pp. 745-751. Manila, Philippines: National Commission for Culture and the Arts. Original edition, 1914.
Cole, Fay-Cooper. 1922. “The Tinguian: Social, Religious, and Economic Life of a Philippine Tribe”. 2 vols. Vol. XIV, Anthropological Series. Chicago, USA: Field Museum of Natural History.
Lacsina, Ligaya. “Examining pre-colonial Southeast Asian boatbuilding: An archaeological study of the Butuan boats and the use of edge-joined planking in local and regional construction techniques.” Ph.D. diss., Flinders University: Adelaide, Australia, 2016.
Pabuayon, Isabelita M., Merlyn N. Rivera, and Leina H. Espanto. “The Philippine Rattan Sector: a Case Study of the Production-to-Consumption System.” INBAR Working Paper No. 14, 1998. https://www.inbar.int/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/1489478930.pdf.
Szczepanowska, Hanna M. “Deconstructing Rattan: Morphology of Biogenic Silica in Rattan and Its Impact on Preservation of Southeast Asian Art and Artifacts Made of Rattan.” Studies in Conservation 63 6 (2018), 356-374.