Weaving together the past and the future

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THE PAST and the future were woven together in a panel discussion about reviving and preserving traditional fabrics from the Cordilleras, but also bared issues such as health hazards and cultural appropriation.

The panel discussion, titled “Habi: Weaving Philippine Textiles’ Future,” was organized by Advancing Philippine Studies at HU, based at the Institute for Asian and African Studies, Humboldt-Universitat zu Berlin, with the support of the Philippine Embassy in Berlin and the Philippine Studies Series Berlin. The speaker was Prof. Dr. Analyn Salvador-Amores of the University of the Philippines — Baguio and Museo Kordilyera who gave the talk “Agabel Tayo! Let’s Weave: Textile Revitalization in the Philippine Cordillera.” A second talk on Philippine silk and pina fabric was led by Deputy Speaker Loren Legarda (“Pina Weaving and Embroidery in the Philippines”).

During the talk, Dr. Salvador-Amores, director of the Museo Kordilyera, discussed the origins of weaving in the Cordilleras. She noted, for example, that the Southeastern part of the Central Cordillera is linked to the Sierra Madre mountains, and “seem to have no evidence of weaving in the past.” On the other hand, the Northeastern side enjoyed a booming weaving industry. “They have confluences with the Ilocos region, through trade, migration, and intermarriage. As such, you can see similar patterns, techniques, methods, and belief systems surrounding the tradition of weaving,” she said.

“Every weaving group in the Cordillera has their own distinct design, color, and local meaning that exemplify complex relations with their use of textiles,” she said.

She notes that red is a dominant color, and weaving is usually done on the backstrap loom, though some groups have adopted the foot loom (an innovation introduced by Ilocano weavers).

Anthropologist George Ellis, she said, posits that there was already a diffusion of textiles in the mountains before the 18th century. Another anthropologist, Patricia Afable, suggests that the trade of abel (or woven cloth) in Northern Luzon goes back to at least the 1700s, though interactions have already been recorded as far back as the 1500s, said Dr. Salvador-Amores. Apparently, the cloth had been so valuable that it could be used to trade for gold, pigs, carabaos, salt, jars, and horses. The traditions in weaving are usually passed by grandmothers to their female kin.

And therein lies the problem of its slow decline.

Ms. Salvador-Amores presented data that master-weavers and expert weavers, on average, are aged from their 70s to their 80s. “The sustainability of knowledge in weaving of the region declines parallel with the aging expert weavers and master-weavers,” she said.

Furthermore, the fabrics take a little bit of their weaver with them. She reports that weavers suffer from skeletal problems in the neck, shoulders, and lower back; chronic lower back issues, poor eyesight, and upper respiratory illnesses, among other health issues. “This perhaps is one of the many reasons why young people are dismayed by the tedious process, the hazards, and the long process of weaving.”

The local youth are also not interested due to the development of the market, globalization, urbanization, and the many other -ions that erode traditional crafts. “Knowledge in weaving is often not transferred from one generation to the next,” said Dr. Salvador-Amores.

There are other factors at play: a decline in cotton yields have made weavers turn to commercial threads. While this enabled them to weave more, it’s usually to mass-produce textiles meant to cater to tourists “making them vulnerable to cultural appropriation.” She then cited an example — she had spotted fake Cordillera textiles in the Baguio City Market, imported from Divisoria in Manila.

While she acknowledges that the government has undertaken measures to assist weaving groups, she said, “They remain insufficient.” She cited RA 9242 (The Philippine Tropical Fabric Law) which prescribes the use of native textiles for uniforms of government officials and employees, the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act, and the Intellectual Code as being able to stir awareness for the fabrics. She said though that “These are inadequate and fail to recognize the unique concepts of ownership of the community in rights and responsibilities as well as the indigenous peoples’ concept of creation and invention.”

More effective, in her opinion, are the Schools for Living Traditions which aim to teach weaving in schools in Kalinga, Benguet, and in Kiangan. However, lack of institutional and financial support has put them in peril. A solution by the Department of Education was to integrate weaving into the technical-vocational track for Senior High School.

Meanwhile, Ms. Salvador-Amores’ team in the Cordillera Textiles Project (Corditex) have been taking archival photographs of Cordillera textiles from museum collections from all over the world, and reproducing them within the source communities.

There’s also the Geographical Indication Product (GI) program, under the auspices of the Intellectual Property Office, which protects goods when their “quality and reputation are attributable to the geographical origin.” However, no such application for recognition has been filed on behalf of Cordillera textiles as of yet. “Protection through the GI is the first step in empowering local weavers. A GI specifies the place of origin of a cloth and how it has been produced,” explained Ms. Salvador-Amores.

With these projects, one can hope the threads between the Cordillera fabrics’ part and future will not be cut. — Joseph L. Garcia

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