Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Weaving is culture, identity, and way of life for some of the most illustrious indigenous communities in the Philippines. The country has a vibrant weaving tradition, from the red and white fabrics of the Gaddang and Kalinga of the north, to the striped malong of the Maranaos and Maguindanao of the south. “Textiles are signifiers of meaning,” writes Norma A. Respicio in “The Patterns of Culture in Philippine Traditional Textiles,” expressing a people’s creativity, worldviews, belief systems, and ideologies.
The woven textiles express both the agricultural roots of each community, as well as a strong non-Christian belief system animated by ancestral and natural spirits, such as the wind god, a motif prevalent in weaving communities.
The motif is called a kusikus, fashioned after a whirlpool, thought to shield from furious winds. Significantly, Respicio notes, kusikus, aside from being depicted on shawls and blankets, was also popular on masts.
Other iconic designs include the sarimanok, a mythical bird of good fortune (in Maranao textiles), the crocodile/lizard, revered for the symmetrical design patterns in its skin, and interestingly, the Fak, a representation of a frog for its role in agriculture, found in the T’boli’s t’nalak cloth.
Expressions of a community’s agricultural roots are also evident in the textiles through patterns depicting tiny diamonds (supposedly representing rice grains) and Xs (supposedly representing rice mortars).
Mindanao, for its part, shelters weaving communities with shared traditions, their non-Christian motifs common to some textiles, believed to be an expression of defiance against Spanish and American colonizers. The weaving communities here include the Mandaya, B’laan, Maranao, Maguindanao, Yakan, Bagobo, T’boli, and Tausug, each with weaving traditions and techniques distinct from the next.
The Mandaya people of Davao Oriental are known for their masterful ikat (a weaving pattern) in abaca, the primary fiber they use for weaving. One of their most popular textiles is called dagmay, a handwoven cloth designed with patterns of man and crocodile, for which the Mandaya weavers are known for. Geometric and curvilinear forms in yellow, blue, and white yarns, as well as hooks, crosses, and diamond shapes, are favorite embellishments in the Mandaya’s woven fabrics.
Through their clothing, Mandaya women also distinguished themselves from their less affluent neighbors. Those of higher stature wore red cotton blouses with black sleeves, while “common women” wear brown or black abaca blouses.
The B’laan inhabit the hills behind the west coast of the Davao Gulf, as well as the boundaries of the Cotabato and South Cotabato provinces. They employ similar weaving styles as their neighbors the Bagobo and the T’boli, also producing ikat textiles on abaca or handwoven cotton.
They are well known for their embroidery and decorative skills, as when they utilize cross-stitches and outline-stitches to embroider stylized human figures, or when they stitch small discs of mother-of-pearl at regular intervals over the cloth.
Maranao and Maguindanao
Along with the Maguindanao people, the people of the lake — as the Maranao are called — produce malong, large tubular garments both worn by men and women for a number of purposes. They are made by sewing two pieces of sarong cloth lengthwise along its edges to produce a square, and can be woven from either cotton or silk. Landap has been noted to be probably the most distinctive malong, which comes on one solid color or two colors arranged in alternating bands.
The Maranaos weave into the malong colorful bands called langkit, consisting of three to four colors with okir designs: scroll, leaf, or vine motifs woven in abstract forms. The Maguindanao, for their part, incorporate patterns directly into the bands.
The sarimanok is a key figure in Maranao art, despite an Islamic prohibition on the use of representational forms, and sometimes appears in the okir designs.
While originally hailing from Basilan, the Yakan have migrated outwardly to Zamboanga due to unrest and conflict. They are known for weaving brightly-colored fabrics, producing a myriad of textiles with distinct, strongly geometric, repetitive patterns, including the bunga sama (based on the diamond), the sinaluan (small bands of bisected and quartered lozenge shapes), the pussuk labbung (saw-tooth pattern) and the kabban budi (triangular-rectangular design).
The Bagobo traditionally live in the east and south sides of Mt. Apo and eastern Cotabato, but now inhabit Davao. Their weaving tradition is tied to the magandi, a dominant warrior class, identified by the red color of their clothing.
Like the Mandaya and the B’laan, the ikat is a prominent fixture in their textiles, characterized with rhomb designs and curvilinear patterns. Some of the recognizable motifs in their textiles include those inspired by the natural environment: lightning, plants, stars, and human figures.
The T’Boli of Lake Sebu in Cotabato are well-known for their t’nalak, a distinctive abaca cloth that traditionally comes in three colors: deep reddish brown, black, and white. The brown and black colors come from naturally occurring dyes, with white being the natural color of abaca. Some well-known t’nalak patterns include the bangala (man in house), klung (shield), sawo (python), nipa, g’mayaw (mythical bird) and the tofi (frog), all based on the basic sigul, a zigzag arrangement of triangles or rhombs, comprising the overall pattern set in the cloth.
It is believed that designs for the t’nalak are borne from the weaver’s dreams, and that the spirit of Fu Dalo (guardian of t’nalak designs) begins to reside in the cloth at the start of its production, thus warranting extreme care to prevent breakage of the yarns while weaving.
The Tausug of Jolo in Sulu is an Islamic community structured around a sultanate. They used to weave cotton and silk textiles from imported yarns. Linked to the Tausug is the habul tiyahian (or labur tiyahiran), their traditional textile, an embroidered sarong.
They are also well-known for tapestry weave techniques found in their pis (head cloths), tadjung (tubular skirts), and kandit (sashes). The cloth surface of the pis siyabit, in particular, is characterized by diamond shapes, diagonal crosses, and zigzag motifs inside small squares and rectangles. Predominant colors are pink, orange, and maroon shades, sometimes with a touch of white or green.
The descriptions above heavily reference from The Mercedes Zobel Collection of Indigenous Philippine Textiles’ “Art and Order of Nature” and Sylvia Fraser-Lu’s “Handwoven Textiles of South-East Asia.”
All photos were shot on location at the Hibla ng Lahi ng Filipino: Philippine Traditional Textile Gallery in the National Museum.