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The Resilient Art of Filipino Weaving

by Yasmine Cariaga

Weaving is one of humanity’s oldest art forms and is integral to Philippine culture and spirituality. 

Its origins in the archipelago can be traced back to the 13th century and it has miraculously survived war and occupation. Other than its survival, what makes the art form so special is its power to unite Filipinos across all 7,641 islands.

Hand looming has been passed down from ancestors to descendants. 

Filipino women grow up observing their elders weave and from a young age, they begin stitching their heritage onto fabric which will last for generations.

To really understand weaving's cultural significance, we have to acknowledge the impact of the Philippines’ colonial past.

Spain first colonised the Philippines in 1565 and the Spanish attempted to suppress Filipino indigenous traditions through various means during their colonial rule.

The first way was religious conversion. 

Missionaries demonised Filipinos' indigenous beliefs and practices and replaced native deities and rituals with Catholic saints and ceremonies.

Another way was through education. Spanish authorities opened schools to enforce the Spanish language on Filipino children. 

If the children tried to speak their native language, they were met with harsh punishments such as physical abuse, fines, and humiliation. In these schools, Spain also colonised Filipino history as the curriculum focused on Spanish history and culture in an attempt to instil loyalty to Spain.

The inhabitance of foreign powers in the Philippines left many Filipinos without a clear cultural identity.

Jessica Ouano, founder of Damgo, a studio in the Philippines that designs and produces ethically made textiles, explains: “The Philippines is a country that has been colonised numerous times and because of that we struggle with what our identity is and all we have left is the traditions of these indigenous communities.”

Weaving serves as a form of cultural expression despite attempts at cultural assimilation by colonial powers.

“In a country searching for identity, weaving provides that,” Ouano adds.

Filipino fabrics weave the country’s past with its present and future; they are symbols of cultural

pride and indigenous heritage.

The indigenous Bontoc community from the mountain province are known for the Bontoc textile which is characterised by geometric patterns such as zig zags, diamonds, and human figures.

Since the pre-colonial era, the woven fabric has been used to create wanes, a loincloth for men, and lufids, a wraparound skirt for women. 

However, the textile is more than just a garment, it is a tapestry of Bontoc culture that has survived for centuries.

The direction of the weave, the symmetry of the cloth and the continuous contorted stripe design symbolise order and balance, key elements in the Bontoc people's lives.

Also, the indigenous group’s deep connection to the land is illustrated on the fabric through motifs depicting the mountain province like raindrops, mountains, flowers and lizards.

Perhaps the most famous textile, piña is an ivory lace-embroidered fabric heralded as the “Mother of all Philippine Textile.” It is created from the fibres of pineapples and is a testament to Filipino innovation.

The elegant fabric has been admired for centuries; during the Spanish occupation, piña quickly surpassed European lace work and was highly esteemed by the European aristocracy. 

Today, piña is still a favourite of the Filipino elite.

Further cementing the piña’s significance to Pinoy culture is the fact that it’s used to make the national clothes, the Maria Clara gown, and the Barong Tagalog.

Before Spain enforced Catholicism on the Filipinos, woven fabrics were believed to connect the spiritual realm with the earthly world. They were cherished family heirlooms that brought protection and good fortune.

Despite Spain’s attempts to erase indigenous belief practices, an esoteric weaving tradition is still alive in Mindanao. For the last three centuries, the T’boli women from T'Bong village have been weaving their dreams.

When the master weaver sleeps, Fu Dalu, guardian of the abacá plant, shows them unique designs that the weavers would eventually turn into t’nalak. The T’boli community believe that Fu Dalu resides in each yarn to ensure the t’nalak is crafted to perfection otherwise the weaver would provoke her fury. 

Also, when the artisans are crafting the mystical fabric, they leave offerings around to appease Fu Dalu.

On the surface, it appears Filipino weaving has survived assimilation attempts and colonisation but the weaving industry has fallen into decline in recent years. Arguably, this could be because of the American occupation which seems to have left a much more permanent stain on the islands.

The United States won ownership of the Philippines in 1898 after Spain’s defeat in the American-Spanish war. The Americans changed the official language from Spanish to English, and compared to Spanish, English remains the official language along with Tagalog.

The Americans heavily influenced the way Filipinos dressed. Filipinos were bombarded with glamorous images of Western fashion in the media. So, it’s unsurprising that Western clothing became synonymous with wealth and prestige, leading to the further devaluing of traditional clothing and textiles.

According to Jessica Ouano, the preference for Western clothing styles is still around today:

“We want to feel like everybody else and follow global trends so maybe to the everyday Filipino

wearing traditional clothing will make them not fit in with the wider globalised world.”

Along with language and dress changes, the Americans introduced mass production techniques and cash crop agriculture, making woven products consumer goods. Signifying the beginning of the threads breaking in the Philippines’ weaving history.

The emergence of modern manufacturing meant that textiles could now be made faster and cheaper. The establishment of mass-produced garments laid the groundwork for the eventual emergence of fast fashion which according to Jessica Ouano is the main factor behind the textile industry’s fall from grace as she argues, “What directly impacts the industry is the existence of fast fashion and cheaper alternatives.”

Fast fashion brands partake in the cultural appropriation of Filipino textiles by incorporating traditional designs belonging to specific regions and communities for the sole purpose of profit, without proper acknowledgement of their cultural significance. 

This problematic practice dilutes Filipino culture and disrespects centuries of tradition and indigenous craftsmanship.

Not only that, but fast fashion takes opportunities away from artisans to revive and share their culture and earn a living.

“Because the cheaper alternatives exist, the number of weavers has slowly reduced because the demand has gone significantly down. The artisans have lost their livelihood and had to find alternatives to sustain themselves,” Ouano says.

“That’s why I started Damgo because I felt there was a need to innovate. I thought the only way to make this work was to start producing new textiles that are interesting for the consumer.”

Damgo, led by Ouano, is helping weave a brighter future for Filipino textiles by collaborating with a handloom weaving community in Cebu to nurture innovation and support the industry’s longevity.

HABI, the Philippine Textile Council, is also at the forefront of the fight to keep weaving alive.

Their website states, “Driven by its advocacy to preserve, promote, and enhance the textile industry, HABI, the Philippine Textile Council continues its programs in reviving our traditional textiles such as pure Philippine cotton and make it part of our modern lifestyle.”

HABI offers weaving communities the chance to exhibit and sell their handwoven textiles and connects them with the international market by annually holding the Likhang Habi Market Fair.

The Philippine Textile Council further helps artisans by sourcing high-quality materials and tools for them to use.

The Council also aims to educate people about the importance of reviving the Philippine textile industry as well as the issue of cultural appropriation through webinars and lectures to ensure that traditional textiles remain relevant in contemporary society.

As the threads of Filipino weaving are getting tangled, the need for innovation and preservation is growing more and more urgent. Through initiatives like Damgo and HABI, there’s hope for weaving communities and indigenous practices to thrive during times when technology and profit are more valuable than people and culture.

Edited by Emily Duff

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