You are what (and who) you wear: The case for protecting culture through indigenous fabrics

August 5, 2021

In the last couple of years, there has been quite a surge in supporting and wearing local Philippine fabrics. More and more people are incorporating traditional material into everyday fashion to send a message—wearing one’s culture is now en vogue.

The indigenous fabric industry of the Philippines, however, is still plagued with challenges.

Questions abound, such as “Are there enough artisans to cater to the growing demand? How do we protect the craft and tradition from the perils of a growing industry?”

In a recent lecture organized by Humboldt University in Berlin’s Advancing Philippine Studies Program, Deputy Speaker Loren Legarda and Dr. Analyn Salvador-Amores of the University of the Philippines-Baguio and Museo Kordilyera discussed the importance of protecting cultures and tradition, specifically traditional fabric.

Attended by over a hundred participants along with Philippine Ambassador to Germany Ma. Theresa Dizon-de Vega and German Ambassador to the Philippines Anke Reiffenstuel, the lecture provided a venue for sharing the value of one of the Philippines’ most intricate cultural traditions to Germans and Filipinos alike.

Fine Filipino fabric

Legarda, a staunch advocate of cultural preservation, focused on the importance of the pineapple fiber industry and how we must keep it alive.

Piña, a fabric that’s made out of pineapple fiber, has often been regarded for its beauty and delicate nature. Greatly prized since the 1860s, it was a choice gift for European royalties.

Sadly, the production of pineapple fiber has decreased in the recent years as demand declined.

Legarda sees the problem coming from dwindling awareness of this aspect of Filipino culture and called for efforts to help and promote the industry.

“It takes several people, numerous hands to create textile. From the farmer to the harvester, to the weaver, the thread maker, the sewer, the laborious process must be understood and appreciated,” said Legarda, highlighting the fact that supporting locally-made traditional textiles provide livelihood for several families.

In 1998, piña-seda weaving was introduced in the province of Aklan. It married pineapple fiber with silk and the result was a more accessible fabric, with a lower price point. Mulberry farming and silkworm rearing also entered the process to open more job opportunities. Sadly, piña-seda’s production has also declined as the commercial fashion industry took a bigger hold of the market both here and abroad.

Keeping the North’s craft alive

Dr. Salvador-Amores leads the Cordillera Textiles Project (Corditex), which found extant textiles with patterns that have not been produced by the current generation of weavers for years.

On a mission to rejuvenate traditional weaving in the Cordilleras, she and her team are working on reviving lost patterns with the help of technology. “The Corditex intervenes by understanding the textile patterns that we reconstruct by reweaving them through digital loom technology,” explained Salvador-Amores. “Then, we return these to the community and reweave them using their back-strap or their footlooms. In this way, they can revive the traditional textiles they once had.”

Reviving authentic, traditional weaving and making sure to provide accurate historical and anthropological information related to the craft is quite the long and tasking affair. The team, howver, has been making a lot of progress.

Corditex has identified problems that most traditional weavers encounter, from the aging population of master weavers to the implications traditional weaving has on their health.

Among these problems are bone and muscle problems on the neck, shoulders, and back, which come with chronic pain, and poor eyesight, to name a few. These are the price artisans has to pay for their craft.

“It is the hope of the Corditex team to suggest or design an ergonomically suitable loom for the weavers,” Salvador-Amores said. A loom that does not fully replace the ones that they are used to but will keep them from developing poor health conditions through the years.

‘The appreciation of Philippine textiles is essential, and urgent, because it’s a culture-based livelihood. We can all support it by reading about it, learning more of its provenance, the indigenous peoples who wove it, their culture, heritage, and traditions.’

Other issues weavers face come in the form of scarcity when it comes to raw materials and the rise of fast fashion and commercialization that have paved the way for the illegal reproduction of ethnic woven patterns printed on cheap material.

Working together toward one goal

Legarda called on the need for unified efforts to preserve traditional weaving practices. “To ensure the sustainability of the local textile industry, there is a need for convergence among the agencies of government involved, with the private sector as well,” she says. “From the production of raw materials, to trainings and workshops, provision of equipment and materials, product development and promotion program, and a systematic marketing system.”

She also highlighted the need for research to improve production and for heightened awareness that will lead to more people supporting the work of the artisans.

Legarda recently filed House Bill No. 636 seeking to recognize and protect the handloom weaving industry in the country and to open doors for sustaining innovation in weaving and professionalizing it.

Meanwhile, the Philippine Textile Research Institute (PTRI) is also working on the digitalization of the Philippine Handloom Weaving Industry, adding the concept of Culture-to-Cloud that will foster the use of technology in safeguarding cultural value and maximizing the economic derivatives of the industry.

Salvador-Amores notes that the increase in popularity of using traditional fabric in modern fashion is helping the industry, but she reminds designers to be mindful.

“Fashion designers and all should be wary of what textile patterns or textiles to use,” she says. “They should conduct research on the textiles that are sacred, and cannot be mass produced and textiles that can be used for other purposes.”

She has seen fashion designers use funerary blankets for clothing and textiles that cannot be cut into pieces used as parts to an outfit. “Being knowledgeable about this is the greatest weapon, thereby giving respect to the ethnic community where specific textiles belong.” She adds that working with traditional fabric should be a collaborative effort with the weavers and the communities that hold the historical and anthropological knowledge relating to the fabric and the tribes that produce them.

Legarda adds that for everyone else, the way we can all help is by keeping ourselves and others aware and appreciative of culture. “The appreciation of Philippine textiles is essential, and urgent, because it’s a culture-based livelihood that has been passed on from generation to generation,” she said. “We can all support it by reading about it, learning more of its provenance, the indigenous peoples who wove it, their culture, heritage, and traditions. It’s only when we are aware of it that we are able to appreciate and protect it.”


By Carol RH Malasig

Source: Manila Bulletin.