With every thread woven, the weavers and wearers carry the histories and stories of different Philippine communities. 

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Unthread: Patterns from Interwoven Philippine Communities

by the Museo ng Nayong Pilipino Curatorial Team


Dress and ornaments are pervasive everyday items that they can become invisible to our everyday lives. However, the wearers use these not only for adornment and work but also as powerful symbols—of power, kinship, identity, and even memory. A cloth can be used to make a dress, a shirt, trousers, or even a headgear. Colours, designs, and weaving techniques can identify the wearer to their peers. Cloths may also have other utilitarian or symbolic use, as they can be used as blankets, curtains, or a ritual material. Worn and maintained ornaments may also deliver a message to those who can see them.

But the story behind the use of the cloth and ornaments is also underscored by the makers of the materials. A weaver’s years for training and perfecting techniques is supported by an intricate pattern of solidifying their sense of kinship, belongingness in community, and relationship with their land. These are reflected in the techniques and designs they produce. This also shows that with every thread woven, the weavers and wearers carry the histories and stories of different Philippine communities.

Various weaving and dyeing techniques can be found throughout the Philippines, all of which are called with different names depending on techniques and use. From the inabel in Ilocos to the t’nalak in South Cotabato, from the pulaw by the Subanen to the ginamat and wa’er in Kalinga, the textile variety throughout the country shows the cleaver ingenuity of the weavers in the Philippines. And while we celebrate the diversity of techniques and design throughout the country, we can also use these to take a closer look into the relationships of communities throughout the Philippines—just as a weaver would look at the patterns tightly woven and ready for use.

Connecting Histories and Practice

No one really knows how long weaving has been practiced in the Philippines, not even how it started. The organic material that decomposes over time does not lend to its discovery. However, we can build the histories of weaving through the proxy materials.

Cameron (2013) mentioned that earthenware spindle whorls were found in three islands in the Batanes, which were dated to around 1200 to 500 BC. Although whorls continued to be used in the north, specifically by the Tinguians as observed by Cooper Cole and Gale (1922), or by the Banaue people in Ilocos (Milgram 2007), their use did not expand to the southern part of the Philippines. In the meantime, bark cloth beaters associated with the Neolithic were found in Palawan, while another ground sandstone bark cloth beater was identified in a cave in Cagayan Valley (Thiel 1986). This indicates the continuity of possible weaving practices present in the Philippines, which continued from the Neolithic and onwards (Spriggs 1989).

Broken sherds of earthenware pots archaeologically recovered in Bunducan, Masbate yielded evidence of a finely-woven textile pressed on the clay and likely dated to around 2000 years ago (Bay-Petersen 1982). Sometimes, favourable conditions help preserve textiles, such as the cloth wrapped around a burial placed in a coffin. This burial was found in a cave in Romblon, and was dated to 700 to 600 years ago (Evangelista 1966).

More recently, a genetic study of textiles recovered in Oceania yielded a possible connection to the Neolithic connections of the spread of the paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) from Taiwan. It is also theorized that this spread may have occurred around 5000 years ago. Right now, there are no direct connections to the textiles found in the Philippines, but in the future, the histories of textile-making will continue to unfold as historians and scientists work together in finding the interweaving connections of the past and present.

The Intricate Relationship of Place, Plants, and People

In a paper that looked at the indigenous weaving techniques throughout Island Southeast Asia, Novellino (2019) mentioned that the production of textile is highly dependent on the community’s relationship with the forest and their community. This gives the weavers the chance to utilize the resources that can be found from their environment, while also enjoying the benefits of immediate resources found within their village.

It is not only the weavers themselves who are involved in the making of the textile. Other members of the community also contribute to the gathering of the materials, and with the all-important building and maintenance of the looms. Woodwork is an important aspect of weaving which requires the builder or the panday to venture to the forest to choose which sturdy tree will be used. Bamboos can also be used for building the pedals for looms. Builder and user of the loom will have to work together to construct the textile machine.

The weaving process has been documented in various stages over the years. In this, processes may also vary depending on their immediate environment. For example, Paterno et al. (2001) mentioned that the T’boli people of Lake Sebu, South Cotabato would venture to the forest to gather abaca for the fibre. For dyes, they gather leaves from the kenalum tree to produce blacks, while the red dyes are processed from the roots of the loko plant. Both these plants have to be carefully harvested to ensure that the trees will not perish. The sacredness of the practice of weaving is also transferred to the plant, which ensures safe harvest and hardy textiles for the weavers. The practice of stripping and dyeing may take a few days as the fibers are also left to dry.

Once this process is done, only then the weaving of the fibers will begin. The designs for the textiles will all be based on a blueprint that can only be found in their minds. Neil Oshima’s photographs for the book Dreamweavers in which Paterno et al. (2001) contributed shows the meticulous care that the T’boli give to produce a single textile. A cowry shell, one that fits in a human palm, will be used to give the textile sheen. In other groups, the sheen can be achieved by running the finished product through metal or pressing a heavy wood across the fabric.

Quizon (2000) also extensively documented the ikat dyeing of the textiles produced by the Bagobo of Davao Oriental. Here, they extensively use the fiber of the abaca of the Musa textilis plant. Red dyes are produced from the mulberries (Morinda citraflora) while yellows are from turmeric (Curcuma longa). She muses on the similarities of the materials used for dyeing when compared to other Island Southeast Asian countries such as Sulawesi and Borneo, or to the northern practice of utilizing abaca in Okinawa, Japan.

In the meantime, the northern part of the Philippines do not practice the ikat method of dyeing. The process of making their fibres seem to be connected to the looming methods used by groups at the northern areas—such as the weaving practice of the Tinguian groups or those in Benguet—may be interconnected. Pastor-Roces (1991) believes that weaving came late in the Cordillera mountain groups since these were initially traded for other raw materials. However, the looms eventually found their way into the mountain areas, with designs and practices passed down from generations. These reflect community interactions and show the robustness of this craft.

National Museum of the Philippines’ Maria Lourdes “Malot” Ingel also recently gave a talk through the Nayong Pilipino’s Dunong Podcast last 26 February 2021. Here, she talked about her observations in the cotton fibre processing in making the abel textiles in Ilocos. She elaborated the type of designs based on the techniques used for making. The patterns are associated with the size of the pattern squares. While it would seem that these designs are static, the technique used combined with intricate changes in the square sizes actually tell a story of generations where the designs were taught to the new weavers. These students would then put in their own unique style, but in turn teach them to a new generation.

Sourcing the material provides contextualization of the weavers’ work, which can be noted in the design traits and names of the art materials in the Philippines. With this intimate relationship of the plants turned to fibres for dyeing, weaving, and wearing, it’s no wonder that a strict tradition—almost bordering rituality—is imposed upon each part of the cloth-making. This tradition, observed and respected by each member of the community, ensures that the craft is recognized, and thus ascribes meaning to the material (the textile) and the people (weavers and wearers).

Textiles as Symbols of Power, Ritual, Kinship, and Identity

Woven clothes are not only meant for wearing, they are also meant to be seen, translated, and understood. Colours, patterns, weave, and other forms of wear may serve as signals to various groups.

Clariza (2019) believes that textiles may serve as indigenous texts in the absence of written materials, as they function as an interaction point between groups and peoples. This may also be observed in the matter of clothing, which may be used to present power and relations. Milgram (1999) expanded on this in her observation on the groups in Banaue, Ifugao, wherein the textile becomes commodified, transferring to different spheres of use depending on circumstances of the user.

The sacred meaning of weaving may be a way for groups to ensure quality work or may also ascribe status for the wearers, and by extension, the weavers. For the T’boli of Lake Sebu and for the Mandaya of Davao Oriental, the ritual of weaving begins with the dream. The T’boli dream of the design that they must put onto the textile; the Mandaya, meanwhile, may dream of ancestral spirits who may command them to weave (Valderama 1987). This direct connection with the spiritual world ascribes the weavers with a prestigious rank.

In turn, the wearers may also be attributed with status afforded to them by the previous textile. Aside from cloth, ornaments may adorn the body of the wearers to represent position. Among the Ilongot of the Cordilleras, shell ornaments are held to a high esteem due to their uncommonness within the environment. They may also use belts to partner with their clothing as markers of their group, which will be immediately identifiable due to their prominence (Carlson 2013).

For the Bagobo and other nearby groups in Davao Oriental, Mindanao, Quizon (2012) pointed out that the ascribed datu (leader or chief) status ascribed to men of the community also comes with the social obligation to dress as such. Oftentimes, males who earn the prestige will expect to receive or acquire dresses that are socially accepted for the lumad (native) datu, with these cloths coming from the weave of women. Women weavers are often also leaders in their own right; from them comes the power to gift or sell their textiles to the datu. They also have the right to choose the people who will don the clothing they wove, or they may also refuse to provide the clothes needed to attribute leadership for people they deem unworthy.

It is then easy to see how meticulously woven cloth and prepared ornaments can build the image of important status of a person, thus also translating the person’s ability to become ritual leaders aside from being community leaders. While it is not necessarily the weavers who may become the ritual entity of the community, there is no denying that their cloths play a role in the identities. The Mandaya medicine leaders use the abaca woven textile for various ritual practices (Valderama 1987).

For the Kalinga of Ifugao, the binaliwon textile may be used as a blanket or pillow used as a cushion for the corpse inside a coffin, but the partner (husband or wife) of the dead or other people who may be vulnerable to the powerful achogwa of their late partner. To avoid death, the living partner must hide under the binaliwon for a few days until the coffin is taken outside the house (Shedden 2012).

The importance of the fabric then highlights their importance in the act of gift-giving. Shedden (2012) also discussed how the binaliwon blanket used as death rituals become important contributions of the family in the event of an acquaintance’s death. This gift-giving allows the community relationship to strengthen. Barton (1922) pointed out the importance of cloth in the local economy of the Ifugao to ensure the continued support of group relations among those who attended. Solidifying associations among groups across a geographic scale allows these groups to negotiate trade and ensure continuous mutual economic exchanges.

In some ways, cloth may also have an economic use for the dead. In some of the Ifugao groups, numerous blankets are sealed inside the coffin along with the remains. While this may be seen as prestige, the givers also seek to solidify their identity and relations with the dead by providing blankets that will be buried with them. In turn, the dead will travel with these blankets, thus resuming the continuous barter-and-exchange of goods within the spirit world to ensure their passage into the afterlife.

From the Contemporary Past to the Changes in the Future

Despite the best practices of many communities today, tradition and beliefs are always changing. The underlying importance of weave and ornaments then becomes commodified according to the community needs. Textiles, previously prized and only gifted in the previous time, may now be exchanged within the cash economy, but also may involve several gifting conventions within the community. However, designs and weave may change over time to reflect the ever-changing lives of people.

One such example include the weavers of the Ilocano binakul have opened a workshop-gallery in Vigan that aims to teach a new generation of students the intricate art of making the loom while encouraging them to practice their own contemporary designs. A T’boli community in Lake Sebu has transformed a part of their public space to encourage a free exchange of knowledge between artists, which include weavers, metal workers, and ornament designers. Throughout the Philippines, the future holds uncertainties which is reflected on the changing meaning of the cloth. However, it is important that in these communities, the leaders are not only swept by time, but will seize opportunities for the future by holding on to precious traditions. The weavers, the wearers of dress, the producers of art, are active performers within their groups as they contribute their knowledge not only through art but through the complex interweaving of local philosophies and practice.

Fashion has always been a transforming practice throughout generations, but they also reflect society. Weavers—women leaders in their own rights, in communities throughout the Philippines—recognize the need to continue practices and beliefs, but also continue to navigate the growth and changes within their community. In this way, like the minutest decision detailing the design of a woven textile, they too can control the direction of their community through the new millennia.


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